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Plebiscite in Chile: a starting point?

The second plebiscite is approaching in little more than a year to decide whether to change the current Constitution in Chile. The history of the first process was a failure and, according to polls, the second one seems to follow the same path. The explanations for this eventual failure are varied; some mention exhaustion or constitutional fatigue, while others express their dissatisfaction with the proposals, as they present strong programmatic components, distancing them from a more transversal consensus. While some dissenting positions obey a call of political consequence, others seem to be born out of crass opportunism. Although there is support “In favor” of this proposal mainly from the partisan right and some center-left parties, curiously, with different interpretations and interests, the majority of the moderate and radical left, and sectors of the hard right converged in the “Against”.

Comparing this second constitutional proposal with the one of September 2022, it is indisputable that the latter presents fewer risks for the citizens’ perception. It should be noted that this new Constitution was shaped under a consensual agreement by the majority of the political class, seeking to regulate the outcome as much as possible. A basic institutional framework known as the “twelve outlines”, a commission of experts made up of 24 people elected by the political parties in Congress, a popularly elected constitutional council with 50 members, and a technical admissibility committee to ensure that the famous outlines were respected in the final proposal were agreed upon.

Despite the criticisms raised by this new process for containing the popular will, it was carried out within the established agreements, with one of the highest votes by far in recent times, and complying with all the democratic protocols necessary to legitimize a new Constitution, notably reducing the risks for the citizenship and providing more certainties than the previous process. Nevertheless, critical interpretations of the new proposal do not fail to amplify its potential risks.

The arguments against the constitutional project, both from the left and some sectors of the right, can be simplified into two points. The first, of a value-based nature, associates the Constitution with a conservative regression or, from the dissident right, with the inclusion of ideological issues identified as leftist, such as gender or the 2030 agenda. As for the latter, some oppose the project arguing that it deepens or endangers the neoliberal model. It is curious to observe such contradictory arguments in the face of the same text. On the one hand, it is stated that an article that emphasizes the provision of state rights and the private offer of services simply perpetuates the lucrative business of existing private institutions (AFP, ISAPRES, etc.); while, on the other hand, from the dissident right, the risk of abandoning the subsidiary state for a “social and democratic state of law” is debated, reproaching the accumulation of rights that would open the door to judicialization.

The constitutional proposal faces the paradox of being interpreted in a not satisfactory manner by both poles. It is difficult to conceive that, according to the assertion of left-wing intellectuals and politicians, one of the most neoliberal countries in the world, whose economic model is supposedly protected by the current Constitution, could be further deepened with the new constitutional proposal. This assertion becomes even more implausible when the far right argues that we would be on the way to collapsing the state due to the number of rights established by the new charter.

Recognizing certain degrees of truth in both positions that converge in the “Against”, and considering the natural tendency to exaggerate interpretations, it appears that the text presents elements of contention on both sides, reducing notably the risks. Furthermore, in the face of such divergent interpretations, the constitutional proposal does not seem as rigid as its critics declare, which could allow it to become a strategic resource in the future for actors across the political spectrum, allowing competition within the democratic institutionality.

Regarding the political system, possibly the least relevant for the citizenry and less addressed by the poles, there has been a notable silence, and it can be highlighted as one of the most distinctive aspects of the constitutional proposal in comparison with the current one. A presidential regime is proposed, maintaining the Chilean institutional trajectory, with an adequate deconcentration of power and with an achievable quorum of 3/5 for future constitutional reforms. Here it was preferred to maintain the status quo with minimal modifications, emphasizing political parties and their role in democracy, establishing a threshold of 5% or 8 parliamentarians to enter Congress, intending to a district reorganization to reduce the number of parliamentarians in the lower house, which is perhaps the most interesting offer of the new proposal.

This last point is one of the most relevant issues considering the existing ideological and institutional political block in Chile. The ruling in this section forces the political forces to reorganize the panorama, with the expected consequence of reducing the number of parties. In other words, the playing card must be reshuffled in this area. In Chile, today, party fragmentation, which amounts to 23 parties in Congress, is one of the main problems bogging down the functioning of the political regime, without ignoring that there is also a programmatic drought and a weak link with the citizenship.  

After concluding the illusion that the Constitution will solve all the country’s problems, it is prudent to adopt a less ambitious, more pragmatic posture and see this decision as a starting point rather than a teleological perspective. If the new Constitution is approved, it will need adjustments due to the natural inability to foresee all scenarios, conflicting interpretations, or possible institutional frictions. However, there is no argument that, by maintaining the current Constitution, the actors will have incentives to reach agreements and undertake social and political reforms to overcome the current situation. That opportunity was missed after the rejection of the previous proposal. Everything points rather to maintaining an inertia that will leave us adrift, with an insignificant presidency and a congress, given its composition, incapable of providing direction. 

Thus, the main advantage of constitutional change is to have a democratically validated fundamental charter and mandates that require reconsidering the status quo of the parties. This starting point does not assure success or immediate results, but it does point the country in a direction in the search for a solution. Hopefully, the citizens, annoyed with their political class, will forget about waiting for magic recipes and think of a starting point. 

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish

Autor

Politólogo y Director del Departamento de Sociología, Ciencia Política y Administración Pública de la Universidad Católica de Temuco (Chile). Doctor en Historia y Magister en Ciencia Política por la Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile.

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