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The conservative backlash in Chile 

Coauthor Aurora Rozas

How to explain the sudden change from a progressive wave to a conservative undertow in Chile? How to understand the overwhelming result of the right wing in the elections of the councilors to the Constitutional Council that will write the new proposal for the Constitution? The mandatory voting incorporated in the exit plebiscite is a significant variable about which little was known. Between 2009 and 2021, the voluntary nature of the vote resulted in nearly half of the population not expressing their will at the polls, which generated a profound disconnection with the political electoral process. In general, these are people who are disaffected by ideological disputes and have little hope that politics is the way to solve their problems.

It should be noted that in Chile there is a relatively loyal or “hard” voting sector in each sector of the political spectrum. The center-left has mobilized between four and six million people in the last elections. Almost six million supported the idea of establishing a new Constitution, however, less than five million approved the constitutional proposal of the Convention that was finally rejected. In the election of this new Constitutional Council, the center-left won just over three and a half million votes.

On the right, the figures have been somewhat more oscillating. While for the 2021 conventional election, the right wing obtained a little more than one million votes, at the end of that same year the presidential candidate of the Republican Party, José Antonio Kast, again reached the support of more than three and a half million people.

In the 2022 exit referendum, where 86% of the population eligible to vote (13 million) participated, almost 8 million voted for rejection and less than 5 million for approval. At present, in this new election of constitutional councilors, the participation numbers are similar: 85% of the voters exercised their right to vote (12.8 million), of which 5.5 million voted for right-wing options and 3.6 million for center-left options. The significant increase in the null and blank votes, which represented 2 out of every 10 votes, is noteworthy.

Part of the explanation for Sunday’s result in Chile is due to the changes in the electoral rules, which introduced an important number of voters who were not involved in the national political discussion. Connecting with these citizens represents a relevant challenge for political forces with the intention of building social majorities.

But the incorporation of new voters does not fully explain the present conservative wave. Why are majorities leaning towards right-wing options? Why is the traditional right losing ground to a new and emerging party such as the Republican Party, which was born less than a decade ago under the leadership of José Antonio Kast?

There are two complementary explanations. The first one has to do with a society that is tired or fed up with “the same as always”, which translates into a vote with a strong destitution component. The Republican Party and the People’s Party are two emerging political forces that have not had state responsibilities and that brought together 4 out of 10 of those who marked an electoral preference. These parties are based on a traditional anti-politics narrative and present themselves as the spokespersons and defenders of the concerns and needs of the “people”.

This leads to the second explanation. The Republican Party has focused its political action on highly sensitive issues such as fear of crime, the immigration crisis and economic concerns. In addition, the party was assertive in setting the frames of the conversation as the campaign did not revolve around the challenge of writing a new Constitution, but rather the problems of the population that do not have a direct constitutional component. This is a discourse that prioritizes security, is conservative from a values’ standpoint, and rhetorically anti-establishment.

What implications will this result have for the country?

The Constitutional Council must approve constitutional norms with three-fifths of its members, which means the support of 31 of the 51 councilors of the Constitutional Council. The Republican Party obtained 23 seats, so without them, it is not possible to approve norms within the body. If the 11 seats of the traditional right wing are added to this, the right wing’s control of the Council is absolute. The left-wing councilors, together with the indigenous councilor, only have 17 seats, which leaves them on the margins of the definition of the new Constitution.

With this integration, the right wing could, perfectly, write a Constitution that responds to its own interests and ideology, without being necessary any negotiation with the center-left forces. Nevertheless, there is the precedent of the previous Convention where the dominant left forces did not include the right, which resulted in the strong rejection of citizenship.

Presently, we are living in a completely opposite situation in which the right wing will have the responsibility of submitting a constitutional text that will have to be accepted by the majority in Chile. Between June and December, we will see how partisan politics will be deployed to make a new proposal for a Constitution a reality, which will be submitted to the scrutiny of the citizens.

The question is whether it will opt for a narrow text that responds only to sectoral interests or whether it will be open to a broader agreement that incorporates the demands of the progressive sectors to ensure the approval of the text next December.

Aurora Rozas is a Law graduate from the University of Valparaíso, Assistant of the Department of Public Law and Introduction and Philosophy of Law at the same university. She is a Member of the Center for Political and Constitutional Studies of Valparaíso.

Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues  


Profesor titular de la Escuela de Ciencia Política y Coordinador del Laboratorio Constitucional de la Universidad Diego Portales. Doctor en Ciencia Política de la Universidad de Carolina del Norte (Chapel Hill).


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