Chile’s New Constitution Is Inspiring Everyone but Chilean Voters

Chile’s New Constitution Is Inspiring Everyone but Chilean Voters
Chilean President Gabriel Boric, center, holds the final draft of country’s new constitution, alongside Maria Elisa Quinteros and Gaspar Dominguez, members of the Constitutional Convention, in Santiago, Chile, July 4, 2022 (AP photo by Luis Hidalgo).
In 2019, the year before the coronavirus pandemic began, a series of popular uprisings erupted in a large number of countries. That included Chile, where public discontent finally boiled over following an increase in public transportation prices. After dozens had been killed in the unrest, the Chilean government took the protesters’ grievances seriously, and then-President Sebastian Pinera agreed to a dramatic course of action: The country would rewrite its constitution. The following year, in the middle of the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of Chilean voters agreed to the plan in a national referendum. The country was jubilant. Now, nearly three years after those initial protests, the proposed new document has been completed. The final draft was officially delivered to President Gabriel Boric, Pinera’s successor, on July 4. Its prospects for approval, however, do not look promising. The proposed constitution was written by an elected assembly and is meant to replace the 1980 constitution written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which Chileans widely agree has contributed to the country’s persistent economic and social inequalities. Boric, the young leftist president who took office in March, is hoping that voters will support the new version in a plebiscite scheduled for Sept. 4. But the polls consistently show a high level of skepticism among the Chilean public. In fact, Boric’s own approval ratings are dropping, too. In the first week of July, a survey by the polling organization Cadem showed the president’s approval at 38 percent, even as the new constitution continued its own slide in support, winning just 35 percent approval. The two are linked, but unlike the president, who is just starting his term in office, proponents of the proposed constitution have less than two months to convince voters to change their minds. If approved, the draft, with its 388 articles, would become one of the world’s longest constitutions, and also one of the most progressive. The ideas incorporated by the Constitutional Convention include not only traditional, left-of-center ideas—such as basic economic benefits and access to education, health and housing—but also 21st-century social views on the environment, gender and neurodiversity, among others. The document has inspired activists in other countries to call for rewriting their own constitutions, but other outside critics have decried it as irresponsible. The Economist, for instance, disparaged it as “a woke and fiscally irresponsible mess.” And where it matters, in Chile, a growing majority says it will vote against approving the draft. This outcome was eminently predictable. Despite strong support for a new basic law and sense of euphoria during the 2020 referendum, enthusiasm for the drafting process flagged a year later with the election of the Constitutional Convention’s members. Turnout was low and, as a result, political activists, mostly from the left, won enough seats to overpower the other half of the political spectrum during the drafting process. Only 37 of the convention’s 154 members came from the center-right and the right, so their views could easily be ignored. As a result, the document, which needs to appeal to Chileans across the board, is slanted in a direction that fails at bringing the country together, a crucial goal of enacting a national constitution. Not surprisingly, right-wing parties have started campaigning against approval. The Independent Democratic Union, a conservative party founded by a former Pinochet adviser, charged that the draft “favors a blind faith in the state” and failed to deliver “stability or peace.” More significant is the opposition to the document from the left. Former President Ricardo Lagos, a socialist, issued a statement saying, “Chile deserves a constitution that elicits consensus,” noting that neither the proposed constitution nor the one it seeks to replace does that. Whatever the outcome of the September vote, he suggested, a path must be found to improve either the proposed document or the one it would replace in a way that gains broader support from the public. This may well end up being the path Chile follows this fall.

The proposed constitution has inspired activists in other countries, but where it matters—in Chile—a growing majority says it will vote against approving the draft.

Another prominent figure from the center-left also rejected the draft, but pointed to a longer time horizon for addressing its flaws. Andres Velasco, who served as economy minister under former President Michelle Bachelet and is now dean of the London School of Economics’ School of Public Policy, said the political system proposed by the constitutional convention is “poorly designed” and “would not work.” But voting to reject the draft, he said, “is not the end,” but “the beginning” of a continuing effort to craft a better constitution. All that said, some aspects of the draft have won plaudits across much of the political continuum. It has been praised for expanding democracy and inclusivity by strengthening women’s rights, improving the standing of Indigenous peoples and protecting gender minorities. Many have also welcomed its increased attention to the environment. Other elements, including the codification of the rights to education, housing and health care, are popular, but raise concerns about how the programs and services they require could be funded in their proposed form without bankrupting the country. Other aspects have prompted much eye-rolling. Among them are an article giving citizens the right to “nutritionally complete and culturally pertinent food” and obligating the state to “promote the culinary and gastronomic heritage” of the country. Another refers to “spirituality as an essential element of the human being.” But the aspect of the draft constitution that has raised the greatest concern has to do with the allocation of power within a new government institution. The proposed Judicial Council, a 17-member panel, would have broad authority over all judges and would nominate judges to positions on the bench, including those on the Supreme Court. The council would review the work of judges at public hearings every five years. That could make judges feel that their rulings have to satisfy the prevailing public opinion, putting the judiciary at the center of political winds. Former President Eduardo Frei, who governed from the center-right, praised the Constitutional Convention’s push toward a more multicultural system, but also criticized the political system proposed by the assembly, saying it doesn’t strike the right balance in the division of power between branches of government. He was particularly concerned about the proposed unicameral legislature. “[A]n omnipotent chamber,” he said, exposed the country to the risk that a party controlling the legislature and the presidency “could move toward a dictatorial regime, which are becoming frequent in the world.” Those are serious concerns that Chileans are reviewing as they decide whether or not to approve a document that would chart a new future for the country. With less than two months to make up their minds, and two unappealing choices, it seems likely that Chile will choose the third option—none of the above—and find a new way to build a consensus constitution.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist and a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. You can follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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