Chilean Constitutional Process: Third Time’s a Charm?

Chilean Constitutional Convention
View of the inaugural session of the Constitutional Convention (2021). Jaime Bassa (Vice-President) and Elisa Loncón (President) are seen from behind leading the ceremony. Photo by Cristina Dorador via Wikimedia.

By Pablo Argote

Another Chilean Constitutional Process Begins

On Monday, March 6th, a group of experts named by the political parties met in “Salon de los Presidentes”, a solemn room located in the facilities of the Chilean Congress in Santiago. The purpose of this meeting was nothing less than to initiate the third attempt to change the Chilean constitution in the last seven years.

The ceremony was sober. Men and women wore formal suits. They all sang the national anthem and they were solemnly received by the presidents of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. It was nothing like the image that Chileans witnessed almost two years ago in the inaugural ceremony of the failed Convención Constitucional in July 2021. Back then, the picture was multicolored, with a prominent role for so-called “independents”, activists, and the Mapuche people. But it was also confrontational. The ceremony was suspended several times due to turmoil in the streets. The national anthem —played by a group of teenagers— was interrupted, as some members considered it a “provocation”.

A Deliberate Contrast

The contrast was deliberate and, to a large extent, healthy. According to public opinion polls, most Chileans rejected the job of the Convención precisely because of a perceived lack of professionalism and an excessively adversarial attitude. Moreover, since 2021, the country has changed. Indeed, the main priorities are now crime and inflation, while only 36% declare interest in the Chilean constitutional process.

Most importantly, there was a key election between these two inaugurations: In September 2022[1], an overwhelming majority rejected the project offered by the Convención, not because of right-wing fear-mongering as Jennifer Piscopo and many others suggest, but mainly because the country imagined by the Convención differed from the real one. Some of the best available evidence points out that the content of the text was the main factor explaining voting preferences. In particular, the declaration of Chile as a “plurinational country” moved the needle towards a rejection, implying that most Chileans perceive their country as formed by one nation.

Will it Work?

Is this enough? Is it the mere fact of not being like the Convención enough to guarantee success? In the current process, experts have a prominent role. Indeed, a “Comisión de Expertos” named by parties represented in Congress are in charge of drafting a pre-project, which will serve as a key input for the elected delegates. Moreover, once the representatives start meeting, experts could still play a role if there is no agreement in a given article. There are 50 elected delegates, a much smaller number than the 155 who participated in the previous process. These will be elected in the Senate districts, without lists of independents and with fewer quotas for indigenous peoples. In many ways, the outcome of this process looks predictable, due to the excessive rules and constraints put in place by the signers of the agreement —which includes the Communist Party and the rightist Unión Demócrata Independiente.

Granted, it is desirable to have a process that irradiates professionalism, solemnity, and expertise. I particularly celebrate the elimination of anomalies such as the “list of independents” (which contradicts the very idea of representative democracy) and the excessive number of quotas, resulting in an over-representation of some groups. Nonetheless, this design has its own risks. Indeed, it could be perceived as elitist and excessively controlled by political parties, which are —like it or not— one of the less trusted institutions in Chile. In other words, if the Chilean constitutional process is judged as excessively top-down and “business as usual”, there is a risk that people will reject it.

Helping it Succeed

To minimize this risk, it is crucial to have real electoral competition in the election for delegates (May 2023), as this body is key for the democratic legitimacy of the whole process. Indeed, we need a real campaign, where candidates must debate and express their views about the constitution before the election to make sure that many positions are actually represented. The result of this election should matter for the final outcome. It is particularly relevant to have the support of at least some indigenous peoples. So far, the presence of these groups is almost nonexistent, which has been criticized by prestigious voices in the national debate. Moreover, despite the tight schedule, it is desirable to create some mechanism for citizen participation to enhance the legitimacy of the process.

All mainstream parties, especially President Boric, have incentives for this process to succeed. Another rejection of a constitutional proposal could be devastating for his government. But most importantly, we need a new constitution to, among other things, fix an extremely fragmented party system —an issue that was not addressed by the previous Convención— and an inefficient political regime that is not solving the most pressing citizen demands. To accomplish this goal, the participants of this new constitutional process need to do more than a mere back-to-normality.

[1] Note that the referendum of September 2022, where Chileans voted against the proposal, had mandatory voting: approximately 13 million people voted. The referendum that initiated this process in 2020 had voluntary voting, so only 7.5 million voted. The election that selected the representatives of the Convencion was also with voluntary voting, and only 6.5 million voted.

About the Author

Pablo Argote has a PhD in Political Science at Columbia University. His research lies at the intersection of Comparative Politics and Political Economy, with a regional focus on Latin America. Before the PhD, he worked in the Chilean government, in a political campaign, and completed a Master’s in Public Administration at NYU.

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