Chile is heading to the polls once more, after a national plebiscite last year resulted in a mandate for a new constitution. Across two days on May 15 and 16, Chileans will elect the 155 people who will draft the constitution, replacing the current document drafted under Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1980. This will be the first time in Chile’s history that it has had the opportunity to draft a constitution through a fully democratic, participatory process. Over the weekend, Chileans will also be casting ballots to elect regional governors for the first time ever—part of an ongoing battle to decentralize the country—and councilors and mayors will also be chosen.
Despite longtime discontent with the political system, a new constitution only became politically viable less than two years ago. As nationwide protests rocked the country in late 2019, the government agreed to hold a referendum on a new constitution at a meeting of party leaders in the small hours of Nov. 15. When the vote was eventually held on Oct. 25, 2020, 78 percent of those who voted were in favor of replacing the Pinochet-era document.
“This is the culmination of a political crisis that had been a long time coming,” said Claudia Heiss, the head of political science at the University of Chile. “An increase in participation puts an end to a binomial era [since the return to democracy] in which Chile was ruled by two coalitions with high governability but low representation.”
Some 1,468 candidates are running to be part of the assembly, a significant percentage of whom are independents, representing a wide range of interests and agendas. Several prominent figures from Chile’s conservative bloc are also running—many despite campaigning strongly against writing a new constitution in last October’s referendum.
Many Chileans are hopeful that the constitutional process can provide the answers traditional politics has been unable to. The current document was drafted by a handpicked team of Pinochet’s confidants, led by lawyer Jaime Guzmán. It was ratified by a questionable referendum in which the opposition’s campaign airtime was severely limited and state agents voted multiple times in its favor. The route to reform has been circuitous and hard-fought. Although the 1980 constitution has been altered several times, most notably via a 1989 referendum and again in 2005 by President Ricardo Lagos, popular support has been building toward replacing it altogether for years.
Beginning with the presidential election in 2013, a movement comprising various civil society groups encouraged people to mark their ballot papers with AC, standing for constituent assembly. Former President Michelle Bachelet even presented a full draft constitution to Congress when she left office in 2018, although it had also been compiled behind closed doors by experts without popular participation.
Despite these attempts, the political and economic framework established by the 1980 constitution remains largely in place, insulated by high majorities needed to change articles and laws. For instance, in spite of widespread protests in favor of reforming education, most notably in 2006 for improved standards and 2011 targeting for-profit higher education, the four-sevenths majority required for such reforms in both houses has thwarted these attempts. In January 2020, 24 of 43 senators voted in favor of reforming Chile’s unpopular private water rights system, but the clear majority was still five votes shy of the two-thirds required to make the change for that bill.
The system affords exceptional powers to the president, who can direct the legislative agenda and veto bills, while the constitutional tribunal—to which legislation can be referred to rule on its constitutionality—has also played an important role in quashing reform. The current constitution does not recognize Chile’s Indigenous peoples or guarantee certain social rights, preferring a private, subsidiary model for the provision of services that limits the role of the state.
“The political system and institutions have been unable to translate demands into action, with mobilizations the only way for people to be heard,” Heiss said.
For the upcoming constitutional drafting process, several innovative mechanisms have been included to address a historical lack of participation. Of the assembly’s 155 seats, each representing a congressional district, 17 are reserved for Chile’s Indigenous communities proportional to their size: seven for the Mapuche, two for the Aymara, and one each for the Rapa Nui, Quechua, Atacameños, Diaguitas, Qulla, Kawésqar, Yaghanes, and Changos. Chile has not guaranteed representation in national politics for Indigenous peoples before.
The assembly will have a mandated gender-parity requirement—a first for a national constitutional project—and 5 percent of each list of people running together as a party or coalition must be made up of candidates with registered disabilities. Crucially, the participation of independent candidates, who were barred from forming lists in the past, has been facilitated, paving the way for the most inclusive electoral process in Chile’s history. Voters may choose candidates from lists that have been submitted by traditional parties, by loose coalitions of independent candidates, and by groups that encompass a mix of both.
Once Chile’s constitutional assembly is convened, it must first elect a president and vice president from among its members and then set out a charter to guide its work and set protocols for resolving disputes, to be approved by a two-thirds majority. This will be important for its legitimacy and transparency. In order to widen participatory channels throughout the process, various proposals are being discussed for the body, including holding sessions around the country and consultations to incorporate popular demands into decision-making.
“One vote on whether to draft a new constitution, another to elect a representative, then one more at the end to ratify the end product—without any participation in between—does not make the process as legitimate as it could be,” Heiss said.
Once in session, any article must be passed by a two-thirds majority in the assembly to be included in the constitution. Chile must remain a democratic republic in the new document and will be beholden to the international treaties it has already signed.
The assembly will have just nine months to draft the new document, a period that can be extended just once by three months. The 1980 constitution remains in force until an exit referendum is held at the end of the process—in which voting will be compulsory—to ratify or reject the new constitution.
Because the protests opened political space for the constitution with a wide range of demands, the candidates interested in drafting a new constitution also represent a diverse set of priorities. In interviews conducted this May, three candidates running for the assembly explain what has motivated them to join the process.
The following has been translated and condensed by the author.
Bárbara Sepúlveda (District 9)
Sepúlveda, 35, is a constitutional lawyer from Santiago who grew up in Arica, northern Chile. She began her career in student politics and has been at the forefront of the country’s women’s movement as the executive director of the feminist lawyers collective Abofem since 2018. She has been affiliated with Chile’s Communist Party since 2004.
“My candidacy was a process of collective liberation: Colleagues from my political group and various feminist organizations put me forward. I never thought I’d be a candidate for anything, but the constitutional process fits very well with my specialization in gender and constitutional law, as well as my role in social movements. I feel that I am well placed to translate social demands into the technical language of a constitution.
“Every one of the state’s powers has a role to play in gender equality and discrimination, and their guiding principles should be framed around this. There should be specific mention of sexual diversity, women’s rights, and reproductive rights in the constitution. Finally, we need to make sure our democracy is gender-equal across all organs of the state. From the first page to the last, the constitution should be drafted in terms of gender equality.
“The 1980 constitution has been an obstacle to change. Both laws and public policies have been stymied by high quorums, as well as the excessive power of the president and constitutional tribunal. So, even though political will has been there, the constitution is the reason that the country has not moved forward. To call this process a success, the minimum is to have established a social democratic state rather than one based on the logic of subsidiarity. I think when a new constitution is signed into force and it is a true tool for change—that’s when the transition [to democracy] truly begins.”
Cristina Dorador (District 3)
Dorador, 40, is a microbiologist from Mejillones, a small town on Chile’s arid northern coastline, who has campaigned in favor of decentralizing Chile and ensuring the equitable division of resources and opportunity throughout the country.
“As a scientist, I have been involved in the protection of ecosystems in the Atacama Desert and on the salt flats in northern Chile for more than two decades. We became increasingly aware of how the areas we studied were changing over time through the extraction of water, principally for mining, and the need for strong public policies to protect them. I lived through the end of the dictatorship and, like many of us, took on the frustrations of our parents’ generation. When the social movement erupted, that’s when I became more involved in actually enacting change. It’s thanks to the people who went out to march that we have this historic opportunity.
“Antofagasta has the highest GDP of any region apart from the capital, yet we have to compete for resources with other regions from a central fund. The north of Chile has made a massive contribution to the economic and cultural development of the country, but this hasn’t been recognized or valued. Centralization in Chile is so pronounced that most people don’t even realize the variety of values and experiences that we have here. The rules are made in Santiago, and nobody thinks about the regions. Decentralization has to be the backbone of the new constitution.
“Development in Chile is always framed around exploiting natural resources, and then they add the word ‘sustainable’ at the end—as if that magically makes it better. But we are part of the natural environment and need to acknowledge this in our relationship with our surroundings. We have an opportunity here to rethink Chile and rethink its economic development. Above all, replacing the 1980 constitution is an ethical imperative.”
Francisca Linconao (District 23)
Linconao, 62, is a machi, a spiritual authority in the Indigenous Mapuche culture, with a long history of involvement in the territorial rights dispute across southern Chile. She has never been affiliated with a political party.
“I have been asked many times why I wanted to be a candidate, but I always say, ‘Why shouldn’t I be?’ I am a traditional Mapuche authority, and my people and community asked me to put myself forward. My commitment is to my territory and to the role I have been assigned to support the physical and spiritual health of those who need it.
“The current constitution does not recognize the Mapuche, nor any of the other First Nations. The Chilean state has continued to seize our lands, and we came together as a people to resist this process; but the  constitution has perpetuated state racism and impeded dialogue between the Chilean people and First Nations. The priorities for Chile’s First Nations in the new constitution will be to enshrine a plurinational nation, the restitution of ancestral lands, political participation and representation, and self-determination in all aspects of life. Finally, we want to ensure recognition of human rights for everyone—Mapuche and non-Mapuche.
“Chile must recognize its plurinationality with concrete actions. It must create effective spaces for political representation and participation for each Indigenous group. This can be done by revitalizing traditional languages, the restitution of ancestral territories, promoting intercultural health, and respecting the traditional authorities of each people and their territories. Chile’s socioeconomic model is incompatible with the Mapuche worldview, as it is based on individualism and the limitless extraction of natural resources. We understand a person as part of ixofil mogen (biodiversity), not an entity that is somehow above nature. We respect ngen (territorial forces) and look after the existing equilibrium. This vision is not understood by the neoliberal model, and that is why they have persecuted us when we have fought for our rights and nature’s rights.
“A new constitution won’t mean an overnight change, but I am optimistic, because I believe that the First Nations can be protagonists in this social transformation. As a woman and traditional Mapuche authority, I will give all of my kimun (knowledge) and rakizuam (thought) to this task.”