During an interview with CNN Chile, President Sebastián Piñera suggested the plebiscite on a new Constitution, which moved to October because of the pandemic, could be postponed again. As reasons he cited not only the health crisis but also the effects of the coming recession. As has become normal, doubts arose if this was one of Piñera’s frequent lapses or part of a planned strategy to “test the water” and gauge the impact of this argument.
And the controversy arrived promptly. Voices from various political sectors, but especially the opposition, criticized Piñera’s argument. To invoke economic reasons would erode legitimacy, not just in a democratic sense, but also related to the agreement parliamentarians from across the aisle reached in the early hours of November 15. With the agreement they prevented an institutional collapse that was just a few hours away and would have allowed the government to use a Constitutional exception with deep repercussions for the country. In a way, the November 15 agreement enabled the president to exit the politically most complex moment of the social outburst, thanks to Congress.
But indicators of a bigger plan emerged days before the president dropped the bomb on CNN Chile. Right-wing figures also suggested postponement in interviews. One such actor was former Interior Minister and Piñera’s cousin Andrés Chadwick. Although he is barred under local law from holding public office because he was constitutionally accused, he has become the president’s favorite adviser.
Yet, criticism of the delay came not only from the worn-out opposition – which now only reacts to the mistakes La Moneda makes – but also from the center-right’s more progressive wing, led by Mario Desbordes, and the Ossandón siblings, Manuel José and Ximena. All of them are members of the president’s National Renewal (RN) party, Desbordes even being the party’s leader. These parliamentarians – especially Ximena Ossandón – responded harshly to the idea. They said this was an attempt to ignore the will of the public and the reasons that led to the social uprising. She dismissed Piñera’s arguments and emphasized that ballots were already being drafted. It was still possible to reduce costs, though, by lowering the payment for assistants at the polling stations that are selected via a lottery and must fulfill this role.
The question that follows is whether all democratic countries should enter an electoral hiatus during these two, or perhaps three years, when the world economy will face rising poverty, social inequality and catastrophic job loss. And while everything seems to indicate that we will go through hard times, during which millions could even go hungry, the answer is a resounding no. On the contrary, this is a time when we must protect democracy. Populists, authoritarians and demagogues thrive during crises. Just remember that after wars and devastation, totalitarian regimes that could not be contested anymore emerged in many countries.
Can one imagine US-President Donald Trump suggesting the presidential election on November 3 – just 10 days after the Chilean plebiscite – should be postponed because of the recession? Under Piñera’s justification, the mayoral, council, governors’ parliamentarian and senate elections, plus the 2020 presidential elections, should also be postponed, because the recession will not be short. Neither is an end to the pandemic predictable or the timetable for a vaccine.
The Sanitary Question
What is without a doubt is that a consensus exists on the necessity to start a discussion on the sanitary conditions around the plebiscite in October. It is a fact that the explosive increase in cases over the last days sets off alarms about the effectiveness of the strategy health authorities have followed. The government has opposed more extensive quarantines in the Metropolitan Region, among others, and has preferred isolating some territories. This led to more containment of the virus in Santiago’s wealthier eastern sector. But rates in the more densely populated southern and western areas keep rising, which will surely sharpen the perception of inequality in our society, even in containing the coronavirus.
Most worryingly apart from the situation and the evolution of Covid-19, some right-wing leaders have hinted not only at the postponement of the plebiscite but argued it isn’t necessary anymore. And they have done so quite “covert,” looking not just for economic arguments, but also trying to project the futility of a plebiscite in a prolonged crisis scenario. I hope the saner, progressive part of the right – at home in RN and Evópoli – prevails, and although it is only a minority in the sector, can deliver some rationality. Failing this would mean we’d be faced with a ‘white coup,’ which no one wants for Chile.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.