Barely a month into his presidency, Chile’s young leftist leader, Gabriel Boric, is running into unexpected turbulence. The 36-year-old former student leader aims to overhaul the country’s conservative political and economic system in order to tackle chronic inequality, and hopes to usher in a new constitution as the vehicle for that transformation. But the constitution-writing process, once launched with high expectations, is now losing favor among the Chilean people.
Last week, Boric announced the official date for the plebiscite in which Chileans will cast a mandatory vote on a proposed constitution, which is now being drafted by a constitutional assembly. The date he chose, Sept. 4, is highly symbolic, as it happens to fall on the anniversary of the inauguration of Salvador Allende, the socialist president who was overthrown in a 1973 military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The new constitution, if approved, would replace the current version, which was written during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Many blame Pinochet’s constitution for cementing a strongly market-oriented economic system that, while fostering economic growth, has also produced high levels of inequality.
The momentum for rewriting the constitution grew out of a social explosion in 2019, when protests against a rise in public transportation fares morphed into massive demonstrations that revealed profound public discontent with Chile’s political system. Then-President Sebastian Pinera agreed to hold a referendum on replacing the constitution. That was held the following year, in October 2020, and Chileans excitedly approved the plan in a huge landslide, giving it nearly 80 percent of the vote. In May 2021, still ebullient with the sense of possibility, voters chose the 154 members of the constitutional assembly charged with the historic task of drafting a new constitution. And months later, they elected Boric as president, amid heady expectations for a bright, left-leaning future.