Chile rejects "the most progressive Constitution in the world"

The new text defended, for the first time, the country's "social state based on the rule of law", as well as being considered feminist, ecologist and egalitarian

AFP/MARTIN BERNETTI  -   Chileans who reject the proposed new constitution celebrate after learning the results of the partial referendum vote in Santiago on 4 September 2022

With 62% of the votes against, Chilean citizens rejected the new constitutional proposal of Gabriel Boric's leftist government, thus choosing to maintain the 1981 Constitution imposed by Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.

The "no" result is a hard blow for Boric, who had bet everything on the "yes", being openly optimistic during the days before the vote. In the end, only 38% of the citizens are those who have supported the change towards the "most progressive Constitution in the world", results that on the other hand had not even been contemplated as among the most pessimistic options. "The people have spoken loud and clear", he declared shortly after the election, "from now on we will work hand in hand with civil society and Congress". 

PHOTO/Fernando Ramirez/Presidencia de Chile/Handout via REUTERS - Chile's President Gabriel Boric speaks about the results of the referendum at the La Moneda government palace in Santiago, Chile, 4 September 2022

Despite these results, the government has celebrated the high turnout and the democratisation of the process, and has already announced a new call for elections "to move forward as quickly as possible with a new constituent process", in addition to making "adjustments to our government teams, to face this period with renewed vigour".

The victory of the "no" vote

The rejection has been overwhelming in all regions of the country, including in the capital, Santiago, which was an important bastion of Boric's support for his electoral victory in the second round in 2019.

This result has been the consequence of the Chilean right wing's own action, as well as that of centre-left supporters who have pointed out that the final text has been "badly drafted from the start" as it has been a proposal "towards the communist rather than the socialist side"

REUTERS/JUAN GONZALEZ - Supporters of the "I reject" option react to the results of the referendum on a new Chilean constitution in Concepción, Chile, on 4 September 2022

The constitutional project, widely considered to be progressive and feminist, for the first time, ensured the right of citizens to have "decent housing", "free access to water" - a good that is totally privatised - and "access to education", as well as the "right to the voluntary interruption of pregnancy", proposals that have not caught on among Chilean citizens, who have "the family" as the key concept of Chilean society in Pinochet's Constitution.

For Chilean Rodrigo Castillo Cifuentes, who currently lives in Madrid, "when the new Constitution was written, there were many errors and the proposals were very different from Chile's identity".

Castillo says that "the rejection is due to people's fear of the economic and political crises in neighbouring countries. By rejecting this plebiscite, a new Constitution has to be rewritten, but this time we want it to be with people who understand politics and economics", as the people who were chosen to draft it "have not been very convincing" because "there were many profiles that were alien to politics and all of them more in favour of communism".

Another key point that has divided Chilean society has been the fact that the new Constitution recognises in Article 5 "the coexistence of diverse peoples and nations within the framework of the unity of the state" and defends the existence of "nations within the same nation", thus alleging its plurinationality. 

AFP/AFP - Final results of the vote on the new constitution in Chile on Sunday 4 September

According to the Feedback survey, carried out last July, this demonstrated the social idea that "not everyone will be equal before the law" in relation to Chileans and indigenous peoples, arguing that "with plurinationality Chile runs the risk of being divided", an argument widely used during election campaigns. 

 A Constitution as a way out of the crises

The year 2019 marked a turning point in the country's political history. The economic and social crisis that had been brewing for years exploded when the government of former president Sebastián Piñera decreed the increase of the metro fare to 830 pesos (0.98 euros). In this context, the increase in the price of public transport was shown to be "inconceivable" in relation to the average Chilean income of 400,000 pesos, which corresponds to 458.87 euros.

The Chileans claimed that low-income families would have to spend 30% of their salary on public transport, compared to the sector of society with privileged purchasing power, which would spend 2% of their salary for this purpose. 

In protest, Chilean students organised mass demonstrations that ended in major violence with clashes between the security forces and the citizens themselves, causing at least 18 civilian deaths. The army also intervened to curb the angry and fed-up citizenry, even decreeing a curfew in cities such as Coquimbo and Rancagua.

In a televised message, Piñera himself referred to the protesters as "a powerful and implacable enemy that respects nothing and no one and is willing to use violence without limit, even when it means the loss of human lives, with the sole purpose of producing the greatest possible damage". Even so, he took on the ineffectiveness of the political class, stating that "it is true that the problems had been accumulating for many decades and that the different governments were not and were not capable of recognising this situation in all its magnitude".

REUTERS/IVAN ALVARADO - Chilean presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast looks on as he appears to concede defeat after Chile's presidential election, in Santiago, Chile, 19 December 2021

Thus, social discontent after promises of social and economic change failed to materialise exploded into protests that shook the foundations of the political class and finally gave victory to the student leader of the Left, Gabriel Boric, against the far-right candidate, José Antonio Kast. In this vein, Boric's own victory also came about not because of a large vote of the convinced, but because of the fear that Kast might come to power.

Thus, for Boric, reforming Chile's constitution was a crucial point in responding to citizens' demands, but the poor results show that the leftist has not been able to manage the country's problems either, or at least to understand the Andean country's issues. 

Indigenous peoples' rights without representation

In a country where 13% of its society recognises itself as indigenous, this population is not assured of the fulfilment of its fundamental rights, as they do not even have constitutional recognition. In this sense, part of the territories where they live are in the hands of private forestry companies that have carried out practices contrary to the defence of nature and, therefore, of their territory. 

AFP/MARIO QUILODRAN - A Mapuche woman casts her vote during the referendum to approve or reject a new constitution at a polling station in Temuco, Chile, 4 September 2022

Likewise, it is the indigenous people who have led the struggle for the defence of national ecosystems, a measure that the new Magna Carta also defended, as well as guaranteeing them parliamentary representation through seats reserved for indigenous communities.

For the director of Amnesty International, Rodrigo Bustos, the recognition of the indigenous community in the new Constitution meant "taking charge of people who for various reasons have not been able to exercise their rights on equal terms and who have been, moreover, invisible in constitutional texts, sometimes in laws". In his opinion, legally in Chile "indigenous peoples do not exist".

The rejection of the Constitution thus closes what would have been a historic path for the country that would have positioned it as a world reference in the defence of human rights. However, the changes advocated by Boric's government have not been managed in the most appropriate way to convince a population whose fear that Chile could drift into major crises, like those in its neighbouring countries, has been strong enough to paralyse change, in addition to the poor communication of the constitutional project that has been carried out throughout the process.

Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.