Plebiscite Vote in Chile Rejects Proposed New Constitution

Photograph Source: Felipe Restrepo Acosta – CC BY-SA 4.0

Supporters of a proposed new constitution for Chile suffered a big defeat in a plebiscite taking place on September 4. The “reject” side gained 7.882.958 votes, or 62% of the total; 4.860.093 voters – 38% – approved the document. Voting in such a plebiscite in Chile is mandatory; participation was 80%.

Chile’s current Constitution, produced in 1980 under the Pinochet military dictatorship, and with alterations since, remains in effect. The issue in question, according to  Hugo Guzman, editor of the Communist Party’s El Siglo newspaper, was “whether Chileans will continue to live in the midst of a repressive political structure and an exploitative economic model installed by a ruthless dictatorship some four decades ago, or whether they will choose to start a new and egalitarian chapter in the history of Chile.”

The vote marked the end of a process that began with huge youth and labor-led demonstrations throughout Chile in October 2019. They continued for months. Protesters were reacting to inequalities generally and to privatization and austerity initiatives interfering with equitable access to education, healthcare, and social security.

The pressure led billionaire president Sebastián Piñera to agree to a nationwide vote on authorizing an assembly charged with devising a new constitution. On October 25, 2020, 79 percent of Chileans voted to approve a Constitutional Convention.

An election was held in May 2021 to choose delegates to the Convention, which would be in session from July 4, 2021 until that day a year later. Meanwhile, voters in December 2021 elected Gabriel Boric, center-left in political orientation, to succeed Piñera, in the process rejecting an extreme rightwing candidateCampaigning, Boric had prioritized carrying on with a new constitution.

The proposed Constitution contained meaningful advances, including:

+ Formation of a Congress of Deputies for passing laws and a Chamber of the Regions for dealing with legislation agreed upon at the local level. The National Congress with its Chamber of Deputies and Senate would disappear.

+ No longer would there be high quorum requirements for passing legislation.

+ Women would make up at least 50% of the officials and office-holders in all state agencies and institutions.

+ Chile would take on the character of a “multinational and intercultural state,” where indigenous peoples would be regarded as nations occupying autonomous regions.

+ The state rather than private entities would assume primary funding responsibility for education, healthcare, low-income housing, and pensions.

+ The proposed constitution recognized the “free exercise of sexual and reproductive rights.” It limited penalization of abortion.

+ The document prioritized ecological sustainability and especially water rights.

Commentary following the plebiscite suggests multiple reasons why the “approve” vote failed, among them:

+ Myths circulated in the media. The new Constitution supposedly would promote late term abortions, dismemberment of the national territory, and empty pension funds. Critics alleged the malign influence of Cuba, Venezuela, and/or Bolivia.

+ The Constitutional Convention presented the appearance of disorganization and lack of experienced deputies. Social movements supposedly exerted more influence within the Convention than did political parties.

+ The Convention failed to provide the public with updates on its deliberations and was unable to overcome propaganda from the corporate-dominated media.

+ The government’s apparent failure to cope with “galloping inflation” – now 13%annually – and a precipitous fall in copper prices and export income overall cast a pall over the idea of a new constitution, according to one critic.

_ Another suggests that the winning majority included a “punishment vote” by those Chileans who normally don’t vote in elections – where voting is optional.

The fight against the “approve” campaign, according to Guzman, found support in the “the right-wing and far-right parties, the Catholic church hierarchy, the so-called “military family,” liberal social democratic sectors, financial groups that own the … consortiums that control private pension and health services — and most of the media and business associations.”

Reaction to the defeat of the proposed constitution varied. For commentator Cristóbal León Campos, the “shadow of Pinochet weighs heavily” with Chile joining Ecuador and Bolivia in sheltering “the most regressive sectors of Latin American conservatism, neofascist in nature.”

An editorial statement from The Citizen (El Ciudadano) news service emphasized the “gigantic sums of money” big corporations paid “to influence the opinions and decisions of millions of people.” It assigned blame to the government for not directing the state media to “confront this tremendous assault.” The editorial pointed to “an intelligence operation aimed at bringing down the most advanced constitutional project in the world.”

The command center of the approve campaign called for “work toward a new social pact, because what was rejected was the text and not the impulse toward a new constitution.” Social movements within the campaign joined in declaring the outcome “to be a matter of an electoral defeat, not defeat of the effort itself.”

Political parties making up the “Approve Dignity” coalition responsible for electing President Boric agreed, and insisted that the project would continue under Boric’s leadership. These included the Socialist, Radical, Liberal, Communist, For Democracy, and six other parties. Boric himself promised “to put everything he had into building a new constituent process, together with the Congress and civil society.” He urged Chileans “to unify and together continue building the future.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.