“We will cast blank votes”. New referendum and old constitution of Chile

What legacy is left of the 2019-2020 mass movement in Chile? After the failed first attempt to write and vote a new constitution, the Constitutional Council is now headed by conservative parties – a significant departure from the previous parliament, which was primarily independent, socially progressive and left-wing. Is it possible that, in the end, Chile will keep the constitution of Pinochet times? Wojciech Albert Łobodziński talks to philosopher, activist and columnist Joaquin Montalva.

Let us start from the beginning – how was it possible for Antonio Kast, a pro-Pinochet extreme right-wing politician, to rise in a society which stood up against Pinochet legacy in 2019? There were millions of Chileans in the streets then, demanding more equality and a new constitution…

The big asset that Kast has is basically to appear as an outsider of mainstream politics. Which is not true at all: he has been on the political scene since the ending of the dictatorship (following his father’s steps). Furthermore, he was known for being more right-wing and conservative than the most conservative party of the country (UDI, Independent Democratic Alliance), party to which he only quitted to form his own Chilean Republican Party in 2019. The interesting thing about Kast is that when he reappeared on the political scene with his people in 2019, they looked as if they were a completely new movement. This allowed them to distance themselves from the failed tactics of Piñera’s administration, by claiming to be able to repress the social movement effectively and grant more power to the police. Also, they have all the support of different Christian communities that are against women’s reproductive rights, which is a discussion where the UDI started to make small concessions.

Another issue that is important to consider is that the traditional right-wing parties are losing credibility due to a number of corruption scandals that have been discovered over the last decade. Since the Republican Party is quite new, they don’t have this burden and many people think that they are less corrupt – even though they were part of these other parties in the past. Last but not least, since the center-left and some elements of the left have became more powerful during the past 10 years, the anti-comunnist and far-right discourses of the Republican party have become more appealing for people that actually think (thanks to the lies spreaded or amplified by social media and mainstream media) that Frente Amplio (which is basically a Social Democrat collision) are hardcore communists. 

This polarization is the context for works over a new constitution. And these works will take place in a limited space: the constitution is to be based on 12 principles, on which president Gabriel Boric and right-wing opposition have agreed. They will not only shape the future constitution, we can say they already have marked it with specific flavor. And, despite the anti-neoliberal character of all Chilean protest movement which brought us here, most of them are strictly neoliberal. How did we end up with them?

Before voting for the constitutional assembly, president Boric signed some agreements with right-wing parties, basing on mutual honesty. A weird move of his, as the right wing has systematically shown that they do not act honestly in politics. When it comes to voting, political deals are not respected by the right. And it happened not once or twice, but a couple times. I dare say that Boric is outmaneuvered by the right on a regular basis. We are talking about a politician of Frente Amplio who really believes in compromises and agreements with the opposition and thus he keeps falling into this trap.

This was seen in the last constitutional process. The government wanted to get a new process going as fast as possible after the catastrophe of the last constitutional assembly, so they began negotiations with the opposition and…. well… the twelve points (see below) show how far they went with the compromise just because they want unity.

During the previous constitutional process the left and center left runned a very arrogant campaign, they were very protective in an intellectual way. They were basically claiming that left-wing experts were needed because people did not know what was best for them. They over-intellectualised the discussion without trying to create a simpler more political narrative about the importance of the process.

What was the reaction of the left – not the president-associated Frente Amplio – on these agreements?

Many from the left did not vote for this new constitutional assembly, our votes were blank. The vote was mandatory, so we had to do it, but, we couldn’t show support for those twelve points.

For us this agreement with the right was futile, and we did not recognize it as legitimate. What’s more, the agreement was saying that people going to the assembly have to be politically linked to the parties. It was contrary to the last assembly, which also involved independent people, from trade unions or NGOs.

And what is the assembly structure now?

Now we have two bodies, one is a body of experts, academia and the public sector. These people were chosen by the politicians and parties, who had more than 5% of votes in the last elections. The second one is a body of representatives, and for those we have voted as Chileans.

The space for the people working on the constitution is very narrow. Due to the 12 points, there is a range of problems that cannot be addressed. Elements about the unity of the country, nationality, private property are not to be discussing. They are effectively pushing neoliberalism into the new constitution. The agreements also impose the principle of subsidiarity. Social rights are considered as subsidiary rights. The state subsidizes different things, like education and health..

… but does not guarantee them?

Exactly, in reality we do not guarantee these things. We turn everything into business. Expert chamber, which is right wing, and the representatives chamber which is super far-right will both make introducing any kind of progressive or social elements impossible, using the agreement signed between the right and president Boric.

One might say that the constitution is already written..

Exactly! Everything that might be there, is already covered by the 12 points. There is no vivid public debate over the constitution, because everyone knows what will be put into a document that we will see in the future. There is not much space for the left proposals neither.

So what is the left doing?

We are organizing people before the referendum planned for November, in order to reject this constitution. We will fight against Boric and the right, because Boric already has declared that there won’t be any third referendum, any third draft of constitution. We came at this hopeless situation first because of the right wing media, who killed the last constitutional draft using far-right propaganda 24/7 and accusing that progressive document of being ‘communist’, and second, because of Boric and his attitude.

The right-wing forces now have the government, which is center-left, behind their back, as an actual ally.

What Boric says means that there is a possibility of ending up with the same constitution, the Pinochet’s one. Despite all the efforts of Chilean social movements, including those which allowed him to rise to power.

If we reject this draft, there will not be a third in the near future. A lot of us, especially on the left, want a new draft – for obvious reasons. The fact that we do not have any choice is tragic.

Boric’s attitude is not about creating the best possible constitution that will fight off the Pinochetian past… It’s only about becoming the government that delivered a new constitution, they want to leave the state and emblem of a country that is broken, and in crisis. That is looking into the future with no reflections in their hearts.

Gabriel Boric’s personal popularity in Chile is a question of the past.

Nobody supports Boric anymore, or very few people – because many of us are incredibly disappointed. A lot of people that voted for him thought that he was an antifascist candidate. They did not want Antonio Kast, so some of us on the left voted for Boric, not because we agreed with him, but because we were preventing Kast from becoming president. Now it doesn’t matter. The majority of the people had their voice stolen by the government and the right, through their agreements around this draft.

What if people of Chile reject this draft nevertheless?

We, the society, would be in a period of uncertainty for the next couple years. With a new discussion and proper left on our side. Frente Amplio with Boric and the rest of its elite monopolized the left side of the spectrum at the beginning. However it’s over, and now there are people who realized this, also thanks to the fact of Boric’s collaboration with the right.

What are the future prospects now and the mood in the society?

Now we see some weird sense of apathy towards the whole process and towards the government. Nobody really cares. It is like living in the 90s when we did not really believe in anything. Recently there was a corruption scandal that affected Frente Amplio… And that just basically killed all hope for many of us. If they claimed to be a radical center coalition that just wanted to make democracy stronger through dialogue and concessions, they should have not get involved in corruption…. but they did.

On the other hand, since the people from Kast political camp are dominating the current constitutional assembly, they haven’t been able to retain their position of outsiders. By controlling an institutional space of power, they started to be perceived as officials, establishment figures. Their newest results are not good, because now they have to talk in public and defend what they are doing in the Constitution and people aren’t happy with that either. They’re just too radical even for right-wing voters.

Today all the projections say that this second attempts at writing a constitution will also be rejected in the polls. This implies that we will have to remain a little longer with Pinochet’s constitution – but opens the possibility for new protests and change in the future. Kast might run for president in the next elections, but his chances are negatively affected by his party pailures. He is no longer just an “outsider” that wanted to change everything in a radical way.

Call for a new constitution was one of the crucial parts of the 2019-2020 Chilean protest movement. Now people are likely to be left with the old, Pinochet-time law.

The twelve points upon which Gabriel Boric seeked an agreement with the right – with the comment of Joaquin Montalva

  1. Chile is a democratic republic whose sovereignty resides in the people.

      Opinion: nobody could disagree with this. 

  1. The Chilean state is one and geographically decentralized

      Opinion: Here the center right and the right blocked the possibility of recognizing the indigenous people as nations and to make Chile a Plurinational Country.

  1. Chilean sovereignty is limited by the dignity of people and Human Rights recognised and ratified by the Chilean State in the current international agreements held by the country.  And the new constitution will claim that any form of terrorism is against human rights.

Opinion: The first bit is obvious and well intended, but the trap is in the second phrase which basically allows the right wing to legally treat the resistance actions of the Mapuche people as acts of terrorism, which is a very broad way of using the concept. In this context with the points that we  have read so far the Indigenous people lost every tool to resist or to be politically recognised by the state. They are basically criminalized. 

  1. The constitution recognizes the indigenous people as part of the Chilean nation, which is one and it cannot be divided. The state will respect and promote their rights and cultures.

Opinion: Frente Amplio was happy with this, even though it is basically to reproduce the current state of affairs of colonialism and criminalisation of the indigenous people.

  1. Chile is a Democratic social state of right whose finality is to promote the common good; that recognises rights and fundamental freedoms, and that promotes the progressive development of social rights, subject to the principle of public expenditure responsibility and through public and private institutions.

Opinion: this one is awful on many levels. It starts recognising social rights in line with what could allow Chile to go from a neoliberal (that does not recognise social rights) to a more social democratic country, however it is packed with buts. It says, yes, the constitution recognises that we should PROGRESSIVELY (the speed is very relative) move in that direction, insofar this don’t implies to be irresponsible in terms of state expenditure (which according to the political history of Chile from the neoliberal glance of the right, everything is irresponsible). And even if we managed to justify the need to grant social rights, this can be provided by the public sector…. reproducing all the problems that we have today in the neoliberal system in terms of efficiency, corruption and exclusion of the marginalized sectors from health, pensions, education, etc…

  1. The national emblems will be our flag, shield and national anthem.

Opinion: this is just the far right trying to secure something that was quite efficient to show themselves as the only ones that care about the Nation, the rest of the sector didn’t pay much attention to this move.

  1. The Chilean state is formed by three independent powers: a))Ejective power (president) who can propose projects of laws that directly affect public expenditure. b) Judicial power c) The senate and a deputy chamber.

Opinion: this describes the way in which the political power is distributed in Chile today, in Pinochet’s constitution. This was an important battle for some sectors of the left because this distribution (specially the element of bicamerality) makes it extremely hard to pass laws for social change. It maintains power in a dead-lock (the same one that Pinochet’s people created in the 80s).

  1. Chile constitutionally recognises the following independent institutions: Central Bank, Electoral Justice, Public Ministry and Controller of Public Expenditure.

Opinion: nothing much to add here. 

  1. Chile protects and grants rights and fundamental freedoms such as the right to live, equality in front of the law, property right in all its manifestations, freedom of conscience and cult, the superior interest of children and adolescents, freedom of teaching and the right of families to choose their children’s education, among others.

Opinion: Here it was basically the right turning abortion illegal and any form of reproductive right. And also a strong attack against non-christian education and what they call “gender ideology”.

  1. Chile constitutionally recognised the existence of the arms forces, order forces and of security in subordination to civil power, literally mentioning the Carabineros de Chile and Chilean Investigation police.

Opinion: after what happened in the 2019 revolt there has been a strong discussion about the need to restructure or dissolve and create a new police force. One with a more human rights-oriented approach and with a better capacity to investigate instead of just randomly repress and torture people. However, this reform won’t be included in the current constitution because of this point.

  1. The constitution grants at least for state of exception: State of Assembly, State of Siege, State of Catastrophe and of Emergency.

Opinion: this is a sensitive matter because the state of exception has systematically been used in the previous governments (including Boric’s) to allow for the military to enter Mapuche’s territory and repress the communities without granting the minimum constitutional rights.

  1. Chile constitutionally committed to take care and preserve nature and its biodiversity.

Opinion: this is the only thing that I could say Frente Amplio won here. Just a very general “commitment” to take care of nature. The rest are just elements that criminalized the Mapuches and other indigenous people and that preclude social change and the actual construction of a state that secures social rights.

Joaquin Montalva – philosopher, publicist, PhD in political economy from the University of Nottingham. His research covers early 20th-century Chilean working-class thought as well as modern political theories. He published, among others, in Periscope and El Desconcierto magazine. His doctoral dissertation is entitled: “In the name of the father, reason and the revolution: a reading of the Chilean working-class press (1870-1925)”. He is actively involved in the movement for a leftist and progressive Chilean constitution.

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