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Chile's Constitution, Defeated at the Polls, Charted an Anti-Authoritarian Future
Chile has often been a laboratory for policies that come to define new eras of history
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All eyes were on Chile last weekend as the country voted on whether to replace its constitution, which was enacted in 1980 by Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship. The new proposed constitution reflected the social and economic justice priorities of the government led by President Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old leftist.
Chile has often been a laboratory for policies that come to define new eras in history. It was a test case of neoliberalism during the U.S.-backed junta (1973-1990), and of the bridge-building and collective organizing strategies that contributed to the dictatorship's demise.
The constitution presented to Chileans this past weekend continued this tradition of innovation. It charted a path for an anti-authoritarian future. It broke new ground in providing rights to animals and nature, in mandating gender parity in government and public and public-private companies, and in requiring the state to intervene on climate change effects.
Chilean voters roundly rejected it. Although a 2020 plebiscite asking Chileans if they wanted a new constitution showed overwhelming support for the idea --78% voted yes-- only 38% of voters wanted this constitution (62% voted against it). What went wrong?
Democracy is a messy business, requiring an ability to compromise. Reaching a consensus through democratic deliberations guided by ideals of inclusivity can be a slow process. A 155-member constitutional assembly (which included public health and climate scientists) developed the document in consultation with representatives of indigenous peoples. At 178 pages, and 388 articles, the end product was unwieldy. Trying to please everyone also risks pleasing no one, as the adage goes.
Pinochet died in 2006, but his regime still has plenty of defenders in Chile, and many of them interpreted the proposed constitution as an attack on his legacy. A barrage of right-wing misinformation and disinformation sought to frighten the population into voting "no."
False claims inundated social media, warning that the constitution would change Chile's flag and national anthem and even permit the seizure of private property. This last misrepresentation conjured the expropriations carried out by Socialist President Salvador Allende, whose government Pinochet overthrew.
The scale of this propaganda campaign led a group of U.S. House Democrats to write to the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok, voicing "grave and urgent concerns" that social media companies were doing too little to push back against information warfare tactics that likely proved effective.
With its plans for an expanded government role in the economy, the proposed constitution also outraged foreign and domestic conservative elites who continue to carry the neoliberal torch. The Economist, which had supported Pinochet's military coup, called the new document a "fiscally irresponsible left-wing wish list" and depicted it as a roll of toilet paper.
No matter that Chile's current economic problems are, in part, fruit of the legacy of neoliberal policies that plunged millions into debt, ravaged the country by privatizing everything from water to education, and sharply increased economic inequality. By 2019, Chile had become the most unequal country in the 37-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Yet, as the Washington Post states, Chile's current constitution is considered "one of the most market-friendly in the world," and that is reason enough for many to want it to remain in force.
Other Chileans feared the new constitution was too liberal for an age of rising crime and political unrest. There have been standoffs between armed Mapuche indigenous groups in the south of Chile and security forces, and Boric was criticized for initially refusing to renew a state of emergency decree in the area. That made the proposed constitution's promise of "indigenous autonomous regions" less appealing to some.
Yet it's worth recalling how the 1980 constitution propped up tyranny. It guaranteed the dictator another eight years in office at a time when his U.S. backers were deciding he was no longer useful to them. It legitimized his personal power by making him president and gave him new discretionary authority.
As Pinochet told New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson in 1998, the 1980 constitution was freeing for him. "You have to be able to set the goalposts to be able to act! You can’t have a field where you don’t know where you’re shooting from. So I set the goalposts.”
Ultimately, Pinochet lost control of the field of play. His typical dictator arrogance blinded him to a possible bad outcome of another provision of his 1980 constitution. In exchange for eight more years in office, he agreed to a plebiscite to be held in 1988 on whether he should be allowed to run for president again. To his horror, he lost that vote, leading to his departure from office in 1990.
Post-dictatorship reforms have altered Pinochet's creation, restricting the powers of the head of state. Yet a constitution designed to stabilize a regime that tortured and jailed thousands and forced 300,000 Chileans into exile casts a shadow over Chile's democracy.
So it's good news that the defeat at the polls may mean a temporary rather than final setback. The constituent assembly and the government will consider voter feedback and go back to work.
"If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave," Boric had vowed in 2021. Changing the constitution is part of creating a more just and inclusive political, social, and economic order. If any country can craft a constitution that looks like the anti-authoritarian future we dream of and need, it is Chile.