Cristóbal Bellolio, Lecturer in Political Theory and former candidate for the Constitutional Convention, reviews Chile’s landmark electoral win for the Left and assesses prospects and lessons from this experiment in representative constitution-making.
In 2015, I wrote a piece on the Chilean constitutional moment, in which I described the political scenario, challenges, and opportunities of drafting a brand-new democratic constitution, to finally leave the dictator Pinochet’s constitution behind. Six years later, we are ready to take this historic step. But the circumstances that made this possible have unfolded in ways that even the most foresighted observer could not have expected. In fact, former president Michelle Bachelet’s attempt to rewrite the constitution was considered doomed after the right-wing tycoon Sebastián Piñera won the presidential election by a large margin in 2017. His triumphant coalition ruled out a new constitution and buried the constituent process that had been taking place over several years previous. It seemed that the constitutional moment had vanished.
The 2019 popular protests
This all changed on 18 October 2019. In reaction to a rise in public transport fares, violent riots shook the capital Santiago, and then spread throughout the country. The vast majority of the population supported the protests. Massive demonstrations took place. A variety of demands accumulated: from measures to address the systematic rise in the cost of living and public services, the debt crisis, precariousness of the middle classes, and miserly pension provisions; to the general perception of an abusive corporate world and a corrupt political elite, the neoliberal order, and even the patriarchy.
Many international observers were surprised, as Chile stands as an example of political stability, economic progress, and relative social peace, amidst a continent that has a reputation for turbulence. From a different point of view, it seemed that Chile was still living in the golden years of liberal democracy that followed the end of the Cold War. Now, it was fully entering the global twenty-first century, with all its complexities and unrests.
The constitutional decoding
As the government vacillated between a repressive response and the offer to improve social benefits, and the situation in the streets became even more tense, many actors pointed to the structural nature of the demands and the illegitimacy of the political institutions to solve them. Thus, the proposal of a brand-new constitution resurfaced as a way to channel the social conflict.
Ultimately, the government saw no option but to give in to such demands. Since a wholesale redrafting of the constitution was supported by most political parties, it might even be speculated that acceding to the demands offered a means to avoid greater political costs, such as the interruption of the democratic regime. As it was, a full-blown constituent process was designed by the Congress. Its entrance door would be a referendum in which Chileans would be asked whether they Approve or Reject the elaboration of a new constitutional text, pretty much from a blank slate.
Although delayed by the pandemic, this historical referendum took place on 25 October 2020. The results left no room for doubt: with a record turnout, almost 80 percent voted for the Approve option. On a second ballot, they also overwhelmingly voted for the formation of a Constitutional Convention of 155 delegates (the term “Assembly” was avoided on purpose, as it sounded too Chavist), whose members were to be elected for this specific purpose, hence rejecting the participation of acting congresspeople.
Other innovations were later included by a Congress under citizen pressure: the Convention would feature strict representative parity between men and women, and indigenous peoples would have access to a number of reserved seats.
As can be inferred, the very legitimacy of the Chilean Constituent process was dependent on the need for new actors and constituencies, especially actors and constituencies historically marginalized from traditional decision-making.
The challenge of the Constitutional Convention
The recent election of the 155 delegates – on 15 and 16 May 2021 – confirmed this revisionist intuition. The two main coalitions that were hegemonic during the three decades that followed the end of the dictatorship suffered an unprecedented defeat. Since the rules established by the Congress state that agreements in the Convention should be reached by two-thirds of its members, the right-wing coalition aimed to obtain one-third, to avoid radical transformations in the country’s legal structure, especially to protect property rights and economic freedoms.
It failed. The traditional centre-left coalition that had ruled for twenty-four of the last thirty-one years underperformed dramatically. A younger, more radicalized leftist coalition that includes the Communist Party surpassed their total of seats.
But the crucial novelty was the electoral success of The People’s List (La Lista del Pueblo) and various lists of independents. They embody the anti-establishment, anti-elitist, anti-parties narrative that erupted during the 2019 protests – bearing some similarity with the populist Five Star Movement that exploded onto the Italian political scene in 2013.
Paradoxically, the success of the Chilean Constitutional Convention in incorporating such widely representative multiple constituencies also represents its greatest challenge: to achieve a two-thirds consensus among a body of delegates that is both fragmented (with four and even fives distinctive political forces, and many delegates without a clear ideological domicile) and polarized (with few moderates, continuous outbursts of angry debates, and threats to break the rules).
On the other hand, the very legitimacy of the constitutional order and the new rules for the distribution of power appear to be contingent on the open manifestation of difference – not only political but social and cultural – that the new Convention embodies. Indeed, the transparency of antagonism of interests, the suspicion of liberal invocations to abstract and technocratic deliberation, and a sense of effective redress for past injustices are all defining characteristics of this particular model of constitution-making.
Next steps to a new Constitution
The Convention’s work is expected to begin in the next few weeks, and it is scheduled to last nine months, extendable for a further three months. Its first task is to provide for itself a system of internal regulation. When Bolivians drafted their constitution under Evo Morales, they took six months to achieve that, so the hopes here are to improve on that timeframe.
The way in which the 155 delegates conduct their negotiations will tell us much about how efficiently such disparate polities can reach political consensus. With luck, it may also give us a glimpse of a truly progressive approach to the pressing substantive issues next on the agenda – institutional reform and the advancement of individual and social rights.
Constitutionalists around the world will be watching eagerly to judge the success or failure of this genuinely democratic example of representative constitution-making.
Cristóbal Bellolio holds a PhD in Political Philosophy from UCL, and is currently Lecturer in Political Theory at the School of Government in Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Santiago, Chile. Running as a candidate for the Constitutional Convention, his centre-left liberal coalition won an extraordinary seat in the upper-class neighbourhoods of Santiago, but was narrowly defeated internally.