Why did the Chileans reject the new constitution they wanted so much?

Who did not understand whom in the referendum on Chile’s new constitution on 4 September? What was the significance of compulsory voting? Where did the Constitutional Convention go wrong? Has the spirit of change survived the 2019 rebellion? What does Bulgarian Miroslava Petrova-Gutierrez from Santiago have to say?

The preliminary probes had already signalled that Chile’s draft new constitution, which would replace the law inherited from Pinochet’s dictatorship, is likely to be rejected in the referendum on 4 September. Moreover, even the young President Gabriel Boric, who came precisely from the circles that launched the very idea of a new constitution as a solution to Chile’s problems during the mass protests of October-November 2019, in the two months before the referendum repeatedly admitted the possibility that the text would not be approved in the referendum. And he vowed that even in that case, the process of constitutional renewal would not stop, but would continue at the legislative level. Statements that did not help at all the motivation to support the project.

On top of that, it was constantly repeated in the ‘yes’ campaign that the draft may not be perfect, but in any case it is better than the Pinochet legacy. The important thing, it was said, is that it only has to pass the referendum and then it will be finalized in parliament. This has also been a divisive discourse. What would the people even be asking for in such a case?

Against this backdrop, expectations that the vote on the proposal for a new basic law of the country would not be positive were quite serious. The polling agencies predicted the ‘no’ vote to prevail by around 10%. At the same time, however, the recent rallies of supporters of the new constitution held before the vote were massive and impressive. So the pollsters were influenced by the spectacular footage and took to assuming a minimal margin of about 1-2%.

But here came the actual voting in the September 4 referendum. And its results stunned everyone – political forces of all tendencies, citizens and commentators.

It turned out that 62% of the voters voted against the new constitution that Chileans wanted, while only 38% voted for it.

This impressive difference has had a stunning effect on the whole of public life in Chile and its observers around the world. Naturally, it also shook the government of Gabriel Boric, elected in December 2021 with around 56% of the vote, to its foundations.

While the referendum was about a constitution, it was also seen as a test of Boric’s rule. And the result obtained did not show a preponderance of voters supporting his tendency. On the contrary.

Boric, feeling shaken, immediately declared that he had “humbly” listened to the voice of the people, swiftly undertaking government reshuffles, with the triumphant right not failing to twist his arms for personnel changes.

What happened to the Chileans?

How did this turnaround come about, when they were so keen precisely to replace the Pinochet constitution with a new one – rejecting neoliberalism, social, guaranteeing civil rights?

This was one of the main impulses of the violent protests that boiled over in the “showcase of neoliberalism” Chile in October 2019. After that public revolt resulted in a constitutional solution to the crisis, a referendum was held in 2020 to decide whether to change the constitution and, if a change was chosen, who should draft the new one. At that time, nearly 80% of the electorate voted for a new basic law to be drafted by a specially elected Constitutional Convention.

The protests in Chile in 2019 were also marked by violent confrontations between the citizens and the police.

Then, in 2021, they elected the composition of this convention, whose 155 members were convincingly dominated by representatives of the left, civil movements, and independents, while the right failed to take the blocking 1/3 of the seats. There was complete parity between women and men, and the 17 indigenous communities in Chile were guaranteed 17 seats.

Many inspired comments were generated by the start of this peculiar body without parallel in Chilean (and perhaps global) political life. Its vast majority was made up of ‘people of the people’, without political training or experience, which was seen as a guarantee that they would be ‘pure’ and motivated enough to dismantle the constitutional framework of the neoliberal state bequeathed by Pinochet. Then, they were to propose a new one – humane, social, environmental, guaranteeing the rights and well-being of the people.

Some important clarifications should be made here.

The very idea of seeking a way out of the October-November 2019 street confrontation through a process towards constitutional renewal came from the ranks of the “traditional” parliamentary politicians.

They were branded at the time by the rebellion as the culprits of Chile’s “lame” democracy and its ruthless neoliberal pincers. The initiative was accepted by MPs from the pro-protest Broad Front, including Boric. Other forces among the protesters at the time, including the now Broad Front-aligned Chilean Communist Party, were opposed to such a “collusion”. There were violent arguments and mutual condemnations. The demand that this should be done through the election of a Constitutional Assembly was widespread among those who admitted seeking a political solution through a new constitution. But since the forces of the long-ruling “Accord” (socialists and Christian democrats) and the right were involved in the negotiation process, they opposed such a radical restart as they saw in a vote for a Constituent Assembly.

It was through such a restart that Hugo Chávez, the father of the concept of ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’, overhauled the political system in Venezuela. But in Chile, his ‘Bolivarian’ model is not popular, and the ‘moderates’ and the right see as a threat anything that might resemble it.

Thus, under their pressure, instead of a Constituent Assembly, the complex formula was devised. It envisaged the first referendum and the formation of the previously unprecedented Constitutional Convention, stripped, however, of the weight of a Constituent Assembly.

And something else very important – it was also then that it was agreed that the vote in the next referendum to approve or reject the draft of a new constitution drawn up by the Convention should be binding.

Until 8 years ago, when the electoral law was changed, voting in elections in Chile was also compulsory. However, this obligation only applied to people who went to register on the electoral rolls – that is to say, who explicitly expressed a wish to vote. Naturally, quite broad circles of the population remained outside the scope of such an electoral system. Most of them came from the more socially deprived and therefore uneducated classes. Since then, the law has been reformed; now all Chilean citizens have voting rights, and exercising them is not compulsory. Consequently, the participation rate in voting is not very high, as it is everywhere in the world.

However, the right imposed in the negotiations with the Broad Front in November 2019 that it was the referendum on a new constitution, held now, on 4 September, that should have compulsory voting. And this circumstance seems to have played quite an important role in the result that emerged.

This opinion was expressed in an interview with “Barricada” by Miroslava Petrova-Gutierrez, a Bulgarian who has lived in Santiago with her family for decades and is also an important political figure in the Democratic Revolution party, the largest of the Broad Front. Miroslava was its Executive Secretary and is now on its Control Committee.

She explains that compulsory voting has now forcibly taken to the polls some 5 million people who have never voted. Many of them are either uninformed, very young people with their first electoral experience, or totally unenlightened political representatives of the poorest and most uneducated strata, susceptible to the aggressive media propaganda discrediting and distorting the constitutional project.

These people were angry that they are being subjected to “violence”, that they are being obliged under threat of heavy fines to participate in voting, which they reject for one or another reason. In this group there are are, for example, some radical circles of the indigenous Mapuche community who refuse to recognise the Chilean state at all.

As Myroslava points out, in these circumstances, the comparison that is being widely made – that in the 2020 referendum, 80% demanded a new constitution and now 62% have rejected it – is not correct.

“In 2020 the vote was not binding. Only motivated voters took part in that referendum – there were about 7.5 million of them. And 80% of them demanded a new constitution, drafted by a Constitutional Convention. And now we had a compulsory vote. It brought nearly 13 million voters to the polls, 5 million of them who had never voted before. That is, the 62% who rejected the constitution came from double the number of voters compared to 2020,” she points out.

Miroslava draws attention to the fact that many of these people are politically unoriented, uneducated, have not read the draft constitution. They have also listened to the fierce media campaign spreading outright lies about the content of the proposed new basic law – for example, about expropriations, withdrawal of pension funds, deprivation of the right to a second property, etc. All these are fabrications, not to be found in the text.

People and communities whose rights and interests the new constitution explicitly defends, have voted against it.

This applies to communities of indigenous peoples who have lived under oppression for centuries and to whom it gives extensive rights and guarantees. Or communities that have suffered for decades from a lack of water, because even Chile’s water resources have been privatised, and the draft stipulated that they should be a public good.

Pointing to the insistent and incessant propaganda of the right and its affiliated media aimed at discrediting the new constitution and the Constitutional Convention that drafted it, Miroslava admits that the members of the Convention itself made many mistakes in their communication and work, as well as in the text of the draft. She says that during the first six months of the Convention’s functioning, political inexperience and lack of constructive cooperation among its members caused numerous conflict situations and had a very negative impact on the high public expectations. Unpleasant facts have also come to light, exposing some of the Convention’s previously popular figures’ fraud and dishonesty. Internal tensions and mutual accusations between some of the representatives of parties and formations embodying the desire for change have also given rise to the disappointment that “these too are like the former”.

According to Miroslava, in the end, the Convention did work effectively and prepared the text of the new constitution now proposed for voting – “so progressive that it was ahead of its time”.

“It would have been the only basic law in the world that proclaimed the state not only social, democratic and legal, but also ecological, and along with that also multinational, intercultural, regional. However, it all came together too much for a country as conservative in tradition, neoliberal in economics and individualistic in mentality as Chile. As one friend put it, our people asked for a simple fruit juice and we gave them a multivitamin cocktail,” says Miroslava.

Like many other commentators, she points out that the term “multinational country” has particularly startled Chileans. Explicitly stating that it also remains united and indivisible territorially has not reassured them. This ‘plurinationality’ is, of course, a curtsy to indigenous peoples (and to a lesser extent to migrant communities), who are also guaranteed territories with self-government, something they have long been fighting for.

At the same time, as already mentioned, in municipalities with a high percentage of indigenous peoples, the draft new constitution was also rejected. The reasons are multilayered, but in the first place it should not be forgotten that this population, which has been fighting for centuries and does not recognise the Chilean State, which is crushing it with violence and repression, cannot suddenly see that something good can come from this oppressor. Including now, with the Boric Government maintaining a state of emergency in the most unruly areas. Moreover, 11 days before the vote for a new constitution, a popular leader of one of the most radical and armed movements of the Mapuche community, Héctor Jaitul, who, incidentally, is known from the armed resistance against the Pinochet dictatorship when he was a member of the Manuel Rodríguez Front, was imprisoned.

Of course, his current group is far from being the most representative of the Mapuche community, which includes significantly more legalist and human rights organisations. But this arrest was certainly a bad signal for indigenous peoples on the eve of the vote, which Jaitul himself had described in advance as a “folkloric performance”.

To begin with, the criticism leveled at the project from the left is mostly that the good wishes it proclaims are not backed up by concrete constructs and mechanisms for their implementation.

The left’s expectations of it were that it would dismantle the Pinochet neoliberal state and instead create a solid foundation for a new solidaristic and social social contract.

There was no need to get carried away with so many details, many of which allowed for malicious interpretations. The details had to be left to later fleshing out lawmaking.

More important was a principled framework that would not only guarantee the social rights of citizens, but also identify the sources of the resources needed for change, to specify the means of redistribution of wealth. Or, as some of the left critics put it, to determine that the price of crises would be paid not by the most vulnerable members of society, but by the most advantaged.

Apparently, the “ordinary” working man failed to find the important things for his life in this wordy and pathetic project. And that is why even in working-class neighbourhoods the new constitution was rejected, and campaigners for the project tell how at campaign meetings before the vote, elated workers told them: ‘All that’s fine, but so what? The day after the vote, we’re back at work.”

Miroslava admits that at the core of the forces that drove both the protests and the process of constitutional change is the educated and politically engaged middle class, which felt the blows of neoliberalism strongly and wanted to change the system. But it is far from being the whole people. “We remained in our bubble. It turned out that we had no idea how the people lived and what they thought. We are in the big cities, we don’t get out of there. To begin with, most of our parties don’t even have structures on the ground,” she explains self-critically.

The fact is that only the Communists have had such structures in every locality for ages. That is why they perform well in local elections. But in national elections, if they go it alone, they can hardly get more than 5% – the atavistic anti-communism ingrained in Chilean society is at work. The CHP is now in alliance with the Broad Front, but this alliance is not easy either.

Before the internal primaries to determine their common candidate in the presidential election, the CHP was convinced that its challenger, the very experienced and popular mayor of the Recoleta metropolitan area, Daniel Jadue, would win. But the young Boric, whose only organisational experience was the big student strike of 2011, but who bet on the consensual tone – and consequently earned himself a lot of attacks for his readiness to collaborate with the system that was destined to collapse – came out ahead. Boric’s election was accepted out of necessity by the communists, yet jealousies, egos and tensions have long echoed, and continue to echo, in the left coalition.

Even further to the left and away from the communists, there are also formations with their own separate angle, usually highly critical of Boric and his tendency. The president has come in for fierce criticism from this direction, even when he refrained after coming to power from holding the long-notoriously brutal Carabinieri Corps to account for the violence it used against demonstrators during the October-November 2019 protests. And we should not forget that many participants in those protests then suffered grievously, including losing their eyes from being hit by Carabinieri plastic bullets. And one of the key demands in all the votes held since then was to hold them accountable for those tragedies. Borich disappointed many when, after taking power as ‘president of all Chileans’, he sought dialogue with the carabinieri instead of forcing the search and punishment of those responsible for the repression and mutilation of demonstrators.

Still with the same consensual drive,

Boric is also pursuing a line of dialogue with the right, with big business, with international financial institutions.

And this has long since earned him the open rejection of the radical left, which accuses him of having “sold out to neoliberalism”.

Boric and his supporters, however, also have their arguments. In a complex country like Chile, where the army has not lost its powerful influence even though Pinochet surrendered power over three decades ago, and where big capital with a hefty transnational backbone continues to pull the strings in everything, an inexperienced young president with leftist fantasies, together with all his exalted fans, is easy prey if he does not play by their rules. That is why in the now sudden post-referendum picture Boric was so frantically quick to announce that he “humbly” accepted the popular vote and that he would reform his government in line with the sentiments expressed.

He immediately invited all leaders of political parties, including the right-wing parties, for a dialogue so that a national unity pact and a common outcome with a new constitutional process could be sought. Except… Although before the vote the more moderate right declared that regardless of the result it too wanted a new constitution and that if the Convention’s draft (which it was vehemently attacking) was rejected it would work for a new, more balanced draft, now suddenly these declarations have blurred and floated. None of even the most moderate right-wing parties responded to Boric’s invitation to meet at La Moneda presidential palace to seek a consensual solution to the constitutional process. And it is clear that it cannot be done without one.

After all, as Boric reminded us, in the 2020 referendum nearly 80% of voters have already decided that there should be a new constitution. And no one can overturn that decision.

Gabriel Boric giving the statement after the vote.

A dialogue between the passable leftist Boric and his government and the now inflated to the skies right wing obviously still needs to be held. The right itself is aware that it is obliged to coexist with Boric at least during the 4 years of his mandate. He is untouchable according to the Pinochet constitution – it does not provide for the option of impeachment. Boric and company understand that they are doomed to careful consensus politics because they cannot push through any presidential proposal for legislative change without sufficient support in parliament – in both houses the right-wing holds half the seats and can block any initiative.

It is inevitable for Boric and his team to find themselves between two fires – the right, which will always be stalking them for “endangering democracy” and will block “too” progressive proposals, and the far left, which will constantly insist that “you can’t negotiate with the right”, and if you negotiate, then you have “sold out” to it.

Miroslava is adamant that without dialogue with the right “this government will not govern, it will only administer”. She is convinced: ‘If we want to pass social laws, political instruments must be applied to ensure the support of at least part of the right in parliament. Like it or not, politics is the art of dialogue. Confrontation leads nowhere”. Of course, this approach also has its limits and questions. For example – how far can a constructive compromise stretch and where does the characterless “squatting” begin?

Just as we were talking to Miroslava on one of the social networks, we also received a “live” illustration of the sharply increased appetite of the Chilean right after the 4 September vote to twist the president’s arms and impose its own criteria on him.

As has already been mentioned, immediately after the rejection of the new constitution, Boric also promised changes in the government. He announced them on 6 September. They had not even gone through the official channels when the right-wing parties – those “moderates” who refused even to meet with him the previous day – raised an unstoppable alarm that a communist had been proposed for one of the important posts in the Interior Ministry. A young man, 35 years old, from the generation of Boric himself, his comrade from the big student strike in 2011. But he had the audacity at some point in his political career to speak out critically of the army. That is – he questioned one of the pillars of national security… And that was it. A cross was immediately put on this appointment. Boric immediately replaced the communist with another proposal. He is now in a weakened position and has to comply with the right.

We discuss this with Miroslava “on the fly” while events are still unfolding. I ask her if she accepts it as normal, if this does not turn the president into a hostage, if this is not defeatist behaviour. She replies,

“Well, we lost. We have to adjust to the new situation. The referendum results are a rout. Yes, the right feel in their power to make demands and conditions. And yes, we must be able to make concessions if we want to move forward in a peaceful and dialogical environment. But no, this is not about defeatism. We just need to do an analysis, to invite everyone to reflection and discussion – why and how we got here and how to proceed. We need to go to the people, talk to them, find out where we are going wrong. This is just one lost vote. But in two and a half years we will have local elections. In another three years – new presidential and parliamentary elections. Nothing is over. Everything continues. The people who want change have not gone anywhere. But we need to figure out what that change should be.”

As for the changes in government announced by Borić on 6 September, he sacrificed perhaps his closest ally, Ischia Sićes, who orchestrated his successful presidential campaign on the ballot and secured his victory.

Until now, she was also the head of the interior ministry. But now she is getting out of government altogether. Instead, Carolina Toa, a member of the social-democratic Party for Democracy (from the former Accord) and already a minister in the team of the former socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, became interior minister. One more important thing about Carolina Toa is that she is the daughter of José Toa, a socialist, interior and military minister in the former government of Salvador Allende, who was assassinated in March 1974 while a prisoner of the military junta.

The other man ousted from the key post of minister of the presidency (analogous to the premiership) was also very close to Borich, his comrade from the student struggles and personal friend Giorgio Jackson. But he is not completely out of the government, he is only transferred to head the social ministry. His former important post of Minister of the Presidency is filled by the socialist Ana Lea del Carmen Uriarte Rodriguez. Three other ministers have also been replaced – Health, Energy and Science and Technology.

An important signal is that representatives of parties that were part of the former long-ruling Accord, which was satanised by many of the 2019 protesters for having accepted to continue the neoliberal course after democratisation, have been relegated to more substantive positions. Now, apparently, with its “rehabilitation” by Boric, the aim is to show the right and the “moderates” that the current government is adapting to the new majority vote demonstrated on 4 September. In the same context, apparently, is the quick refusal to appoint a communist as Secretary General of the Interior Ministry. But then again, all of this is unlikely to appeal to the more decidedly left-wing Chilean voters, many of whom supported Borich with their votes in the presidential elections at the end of 2021 and now see in his course changes they do not want.

At the same time, it is also evident that the isolation of the under-represented right in the Convention, whose proposals had no audibility among the predominantly left-wing majority, did not have a constructive impact on the draft new constitution presented and also contributed to its rejection in the referendum. Democracy will always be “lame” if either its left or right leg insists on bouncing on it alone.

It is obvious that the disappointment after the 4 September vote has severely scalded the enthusiasts of the new constitution project. But it is equally obvious that the enormous civic energy awakened by the 2019 protests has nowhere evaporated, but is accumulating in longer-lasting political processes that have yet to crystallise into clearer proposals and alternatives. Deep societal changes cannot be implemented quickly and with one-off electoral acts. Chile has yet to grow into sustainable solutions for its future.

This text has been originally published in Bulgarian by the Baricada Bulgaria portal.

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