Nearly one year ago to the day, massive protests erupted throughout Chile over economic and social inequality. Sparked by a subway fare raise, the protests soon evolved into violent demonstrations against the government, causing the deployment of the Chilean Army, over 2,500 injuries, and even more brutal arrests. To eventually placate the situation, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera shuffled his cabinet and called for a national referendum to decide on the creation of a new constitution.
Now, a year later, Chile faces a historic defining moment. The populace will vote on a referendum to determine if they should create an entirely new constitution, uniquely drafted by a 9-month people’s assembly for that sole purpose. If the plebiscite passes, a second vote will be held in April 2021 to elect the members of the constitutional convention, and a third vote in 2022 will vote on the new drafted constitution. The process won’t be short, or even certain.
The controversial origin of the current constitution is a point of conflict in Chile, dating back to the days of Augusto Pinochet, the infamous dictator accused of widespread human rights violations. As the constitution was drafted behind closed doors without any citizen input, many question its legitimacy. Though the Pinochet dictatorship fell in 1989, many of its formal institutions persist, including this constitution.
When Pinochet ousted socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973 through a CIA-backed military coup, Chile underwent drastic economic reforms closely following a neoliberal playbook from the US Chicago School of Economics. The pension, education and health systems all became partially or fully privatized (even water is privatized), making them unaffordable for many middle class Chileans. While Pinochet’s market-driven model provided rapid economic growth in the 80s and 90s, the lack of inclusive institutions rendered it unsustainable.
According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Chile currently faces extreme income inequality, with 1% of the population controlling 26.5% of the wealth, and the bottom 50% controlling just 2.1%. The initial subway fare increase that sparked protests in 2019 pushed these inequalities to a breaking point, and since then Chilean economic disparity has only become more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pinochet constitution is said to overly favor private property while sidelining social welfare, but more importantly, it creates herculean obstacles for change. Reforms are incredibly difficult to pass, requiring overwhelming legislative majorities. The rigidity of the political system and inability to adapt to social changes has disenfranchised Chileans, as demonstrated from the record low voting turnout in 2017 of 46%, compared to 87% in 1989.
The coming referendum can effectively empower the public again–crucial for a functioning democracy. In the words of Pericles, “just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
However, there is fear that this lengthy process could severely increase uncertainty and deter economic growth, destabilizing the country. Foreign investment may be delayed or significantly scaled back, at least until the political situation is more certain. The current rigid system, many argue, has allowed for a stable political system and enabled slow and gradual reforms, unlike other Latin American countries. They fear a constitutional rewrite could lead Chile down a path similar to Argentina–plagued by populism and economic crises. Both sides may find comfort in the words of Cardoso, the former president of Brazil who spent a large part of his life in Chile, “it is not by chance that reforms are so difficult.”
According to recent polls, the referendum seems likely to succeed, with 77% of the Chileans approving of a new constitution. Most Chileans are said to be motivated by health care and education rights guaranteed by the law, and a more even division of power between the president and congress.
As the Chileans prepare to embark on their odyssey for socioeconomic change, the world will keep a close eye on what many might view as a political experiment. After all, it’s not everyday citizens have a direct say in rewriting their constitution. While the potential for real transformation is present, the process is both unpredictable and risky. Ultimately, the power is in the hands of the people.