That would have been among world’s most progressive charters? A lesson for all democracies
Chilean voters have overwhelmingly rejected a new constitution — hailed one of the most democratic documents in the world — which was meant to have ushered them into a new progressive age, as opposed to the present charter — Magna Carta — which is a remnant from the socially regressive and politically oppressive Pinochet era. And there is a good reason why.
Chile’s President Gabriel Boric casts his vote in a plebiscite on a new draft of the Constitution in Punta Arenas, Chile, Sunday, September 4, 2022. Chileans voted against replacing the Magna Carta imposed by a military dictatorship 41 years ago.
The new constitution, hailed one of the most democratic documents in the world, came after a year-long drafting and negotiation process and was one of the most politically significant achievements of Chile’s 36-year-old President Gabriel Boric. However, the plebiscite on Sunday, which saw nearly 62 per cent of the Chilean voters rejecting the document, has come as a massive political blow for Boric as his government was largely seen as being tied to the new text.
Not the one to give up, however, President Boric said that the cabinet changes were coming and the government would work to draft another constitution. A Reuters report quoted Boric as saying, “We have to listen to the voice of the people. Not just today, but the last intense years we’ve lived through. That anger is latent, and we can’t ignore it,” and added that he would draw on lessons learned following its failure.
Polling had long suggested that the majority of the voters want a new Constitution, but just not the current draft. In a survey conducted in July, nearly 74 per cent of Chileans had shown their support for opening a new constitutional process in case the present version of the new Constitution was voted out. However, it was a show of unity, however, as not just President Boric but also Centre-Left and Right-wing parties which worked to the reject campaign agreed to negotiate to prepare a new text.
The current constitution was introduced in 1980 by former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Though widely condemned for his regime’s regressive, oppressive ways, and its harsh suppression of dissent, Pinochet’s reign saw a lower rate of inflation and an economic boom between 1976 and 1979, as a result of the reversal of the erstwhile government’s socialist policies. However, according to the supporters of President Boric and the critics of the Pinochet-era constitution, the Magna Carta has entrenched a neoliberal economic model. This promotes free market capitalism and deregulation, which they say, has led to major inequality.
However, public frustration over inequality was simmering in 2019 after a proposed subway fare hike, which led to overwhelming protests in Chile in defiance over an increase in subway fares. The then-President Sebastián Piñera had offered a public apology.
However, the unrest – which was the most violent Chile has witnessed since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990 – led to a “social explosion”. To quell the agitation, the government initiated the process of replacing Pinochet’s constitution with a new text.
The new constitution was drafted after more than a year of negotiations between 154 elected delegates. The primary intent was to do away with the Magna Carta. However, the majority of Chileans saw this new constitution as a long register of “unworkable rights and equalities in law that would scare off investors and lead to chaos.”
The 388 articles of the new constitution included rights to free speech, abortion, clean air and water, a publicly-funded National Health Service, and equitable political and professional representation for minorities.
According to Kenneth Bunker, a political analyst and head of the polling consultancy Politico Tech Global who is quoted in an article in TIME magazine, the problem with the draft was less the content. The problem, he says, was more the drafting process itself. According to him, some Chileans have argued that the delegates were not representative of the larger Chilean society. The majority of the 154 lawmakers who drafted the new constitution came from left-wing political blocs or independents with a similar political bend. Even though quotas ensured Indigenous participation in the process proportionate to the population size, these delegates didn’t represent the more conservative opinions of many Indigenous Chileans, according to Bunker.
While it is unclear how long the redrafting process committed by Boric would take, ultimately, what many voters may care about is the symbolism that a fresh constitution would carry. According to Bunker, about 60 per cent of the current constitution is made up of amendments, making it quite different from when it was unveiled under Pinochet. “It’s not the Pinochet constitution, yet we still feel that it is. It’s a question of the legitimacy of its origin.”
Besides the politics of the Left, Right and the Centre aside, the new constitution, according to observers and analysts is incoherent and unworkable in practical terms. As Bunker explains, the new constitution that will come up should be adapted to the cultural and legal infrastructures of the country it applies to. “Usually when you rewrite a constitution, you look for what is going wrong and change that element,” Bunker says. “But the assembly threw everything out and started from scratch. It’s not an evidence-based constitution.”