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In Chile, Voters Choose Independents to Write New Constitution

In mega-elections held May 15 and May 16, Chilean voters elected 155 delegates to an assembly that will write a new constitution to replace the country’s dictatorship-era charter. They also cast ballots for governors, mayors, and local council members. Together, these elections will be the most consequential the country has held since it returned to democracy in 1990.

Even without considering the results, it was already clear Chile was taking a step in the right direction by drafting a new constitution and actively promoting inclusion: Women will occupy half of the seats on the drafting committee, and there is guaranteed representation of Chile’s Indigenous peoples.

But little else has been guaranteed as the results of this weekend’s polling makes clear. Bucking a three-decades-long trend, voters turned their backs on traditional center-left and center-right coalitions and elected challengers, including independents, in substantial numbers. With 99 percent of votes counted, candidates who did not run with any party won 48 seats. Add to that another 40 candidates who competed as independents under party lists, and more than half the assembly will be made up of independents.

Independent candidates ran on a variety of platforms, ranging from local interests to ending a variety of abusos (or “abuses”) in Chilean society. But candidates do have a common denominator: They represent a bottom-up alternative to the stable, centrist coalitions that have governed the country since its 1990 transition to democracy. They will likely push for reforms that aim to decentralize power, redistribute wealth, and give the state a freer hand to intervene in Chile’s free-market model—which has brought the South American country global fame or notoriety depending on who you ask. Besides expanding the size of government, it’s not clear the delegates agree on much else. Since no single coalition received one third of the seats—the minimum share needed to veto initiatives during the drafting process—the one guarantee for the assembly is heated debate.

The results came as an upset for the traditional center-left and center-right coalitions that have typically taken turns governing the country. Both coalitions received their lowest vote share in recent history. The center-right, which hoped to pull in at least 52 seats—the number needed to veto initiatives—captured just 37 seats. The outcome was even worse for the parties that compose Chile’s traditional center-left bloc, which received 25 seats and fell behind a rival leftist coalition, an alliance formed between the Broad Front party and the Communist Party.

Although traditional party candidates did somewhat better in local races, the verdict is clear—Chilean politics seem headed for a new era of unpredictability, where political parties will play a decreasingly important role in shaping politics. That trend is likely to hold through November, when Chile will vote in its next president. Independents or fringe candidates are likely to capitalize on the established parties’ decline to dominate the campaign season.

The electoral numbers have confirmed what was already clear on the ground. In the last two years, Chile’s center-right government has struggled to recover support after waves of anti-establishment protests—this weekend’s mega-elections took place in the wake of nationwide riots that shook the country in October 2019. Although an increase in subway fares in the capital, Santiago, triggered the protests, the scale and intensity of the mobilizations reflected profound discontent with the country’s politics and economic development model. The roots of that discontent go deep.

Following decades of political stability, Chile’s democracy broke down in 1973, when the military overthrew then-Chilean President Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. From 1973 to 1990, Augusto Pinochet, the head of the military, ruled the South American nation with an iron fist. His government oversaw state-sponsored killings and torture on a massive scale and imposed a neoliberal economic model.

Pinochet also wrote a new constitution, which was intended to lock in his economic reforms and secure his allies’ political influence for the long haul. Many would argue it did, but the charter also contained the seeds of a return to democracy: It set 1988 as the date for a follow-up vote that would determine whether Pinochet would have to step down from power. Against all odds, he lost, and Chile transitioned back to democracy. Since then, Chile has been home to puzzling contrasts—remarkable economic and political stability juxtaposed with an increasingly disillusioned public, many of whom perceived the Pinochet-era constitution as a straitjacket on democracy.

After the 1990 transition, the leading players on Chile’s democratic stage became the center-left Concertación coalition, including many dictatorship-era dissidents, and a center-right coalition. The Concertación bloc governed uninterrupted from 1990 to 2010. Its governments chipped away at the military’s influence, but it maintained many market-friendly policies set in place under Pinochet, taking relatively moderate steps to build a stronger social safety net and redistribute income.

The results were GDP growth rates that outpaced those in most of Latin America, declining poverty rates, and macroeconomic stability. But beneath the surface, anger was brewing. High growth rates came at a price. Despite declining poverty, Chile became profoundly unequal and developed a yawning gap between the rich and the middle class. With a Gini coefficient of 0.46, Chile, a member of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, has the group’s second highest income inequality levels.

Meanwhile, establishment politicians on both the left and the right failed to advance policies that lightened the burden of rising living costs tied to basics like housing, transportation, and medicine, which fell heavily on the country’s middle class. That put them further and further out of touch with ordinary voters, and mass partisanship and turnout declined. The Centro de Estudios Públicos recently reported that barely 2 percent of Chileans trust political parties.

Even though Chilean parties have campaigned more on ideas than personalities since 1990—a rarity among South America’s often personalized politics—it became increasingly difficult for voters to tell the major coalitions apart. The center left received international praise for avoiding the spells of populism and radicalism faced by regional neighbors Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Still, it also gave up on deep reforms to Pinochet’s model. In 2012, a leading politician from Chile’s Socialist Party said attempting to change Pinochet’s 1980 constitution would amount to handing Michelle Bachelet, who was seeking a second presidential mandate at the time, a lifejacket made of lead.

Cue the 2019 protests. The scale was unprecedented. Instead of viewing the mobilization as an opportunity for change, Sebastián Piñera, the country’s conservative president, reacted by declaring a state of emergency and dispatching security forces that left 36 protesters dead, thousands of people injured, and hundreds of people blind from rubber bullets. Barely a week before the protests erupted, Piñera called Chile an “oasis” in Latin America. Following the massive protests, the president infamously stated the country was “at war.” Both statements revealed a deep disconnect with voters. Unsurprisingly, Piñera has since become the most unpopular president since democratization, with an approval rating stuck in the single digits.

The government’s failed response to the protests forced politicians from across the ideological spectrum to finally propose a plebiscite to draft a new constitution. The vote, which took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020, saw 78 percent support for drafting a new constitution by convening a constitutional convention.

It will be hard for the drafting body to find consensus, but the weekend’s lackluster turnout demonstrated it may be even more difficult to build a sense of legitimacy. Although more than a million protesters took to the streets to demand a new constitution in 2019, turnout barely topped 40 percent—far below turnout rates in elections to rewrite other Latin American constitutions in recent years. Ironically, disappointment with the status quo, which fueled demands for the constitutional overhaul, may also have kept voters home on election day.

But observers should be cautious about drawing parallels with other recent constitutional rewrites in Latin America. In 1999, then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez led the charge to replace his country’s constitution in elections that threw out traditional parties. In 2006 and 2007, Ecuador and Bolivia followed suit. But besides the rebuke to traditional parties, Chile’s constitutional moment shares little else with these earlier episodes. Chile’s independents lack a strong leader, so they are unlikely to seek inflated presidential powers. They do not hail from an organized social movement like Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism but rather from all walks of professional and political life. Instead of a state-led approach to development that leans heavily on natural resources—the favorite recipe of Latin America’s leftist governments of the 2000s—Chile’s independents have promised to put the environment first and display more sensitivity toward marginalized groups, notably Chile’s Indigenous peoples, who were not recognized by the previous charter. The outcome for Chile’s economic policies could go in many directions, a possibility observers noted. Just hours after votes were counted, the country’s stock market registered its biggest drop since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 as investors worried about possibilities for radical economic change.

Chile’s government could head from this political crossroad in one of two directions. The country could be following in the direction of its regional neighbor, Uruguay—a country that also transitioned from military dictatorship in the 1980s to become a genuinely inclusive, stable democracy where left and right parties maintain strong connections with voters but also trade control of office peacefully. More ominously, Chile could be headed in the direction of Peru, where established parties collapsed years ago, leaving a political vacuum in their place filled by turbulence.

The delegates to the convention now have a nine-month window to draft the new charter with the possibility of a three-month extension. What happens on the inside of Chile’s constituent assembly should give early signs of which direction the country is headed.

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