Constitutional Process OPINION

Bipolar Chile

In the Sept. 4 plebiscite, Chileans dealt a crushing blow to the constitutional proposal. Its clear rejection reveals signs of bipolarity in society. But the defeat is just one step back.

It is difficult to explain what happened on Sept. 4, the U-turn Chile has made in such a short time, as 62 percent of voters on a record 86 percent turnout (voting was mandatory) rejected the constitutional proposal.

How did we get here? In the entry plebiscite almost 80 percent of voters, on a 50 percent (voluntary) turnout, voted to eliminate the current Constitution imposed during the dictatorship. The proposal was written by a democratically elected 155-member Convention (43 percent turnout), in which established parties – left, right, center – gained very little representation.

What Happened?

Although controversial for some, the concept of bipolarity best explains what happened from Oct. 18, when the social revolt broke out, until Sept. 4.

I believe that on Sunday, rather than voting against the constitutional text, voters expressed their annoyance and dissatisfaction with the Convention that wrote it, and in particular with some of its members. The extreme positions of some representatives of the People’s List (Lista del Pueblo), who sparked hopes of political renewal but created a fiasco, and the clumsy decision to not invite the former presidents to the final text’s presentation ceremony, added to political-communicative errors such as changing the name of the Senate and trying to take four years away from lawmakers that were elected for eight.

These developments spurred Christian Democratic senators to campaign for the Rechazo (reject) option, even though the party voted to support the proposal.

Why did the proposed new constitution go down in flames?

Other Factors

But others also share responsibility for this catastrophic outcome. Beyond the democratic expression at the ballot box, some powers that be campaigned harshly and ruthlessly against the Convention, even before one word was written. They managed to install a reality adverse to the Convention, building a trap into which it easily fell. Fake news was a campaign weapon. They included absurdities like the national anthem being changed or fear-inducing claims of pension savings being taken away.

By far the best strategy was to use what CNN journalist Daniel Matamala called subcontractors – has-beens of the former left-wing Concertación coalition who sought a place in the spotlight, while right-wing figures waited behind the curtain.

This was smart. The right wrote the script, which others enacted. It even managed to obscure a coordination and campaign nexus with the far-right Republican Party, which has always opposed even the slightest constitutional change.

What Now?

A few weeks before the plebiscite, right-wing Chile Vamos coalition presented 10 points they were willing to change if the proposal was rejected. With the exception of turning Chile into a social and democratic state of the law – consensus seems to be that the current subsidiary state is unviable – the other points constitute vague and cheap commitments to more participation, a right to individual security or more decentralization.

Right after the results were known, the actors behind the curtain entered the stage. Far-right leader José Antonio Kast declared the result a defeat for the government. But he also must explain how far his Republicans are willing to go with reforms.

Undoubtedly, President Gabriel Boric will play a fundamental role in this new phase of the constitutional process. I believe this is a tremendous opportunity for him.

On the night of Sept. 4, he projected himself as a statesman, a good sign. He called for national unity, was self-critical, highlighted Congress’ role, democracy and the popular will expressed in the plebiscite. He said we’ll have a second chance and that he’ll talk to everyone who wants a new Constitution.

But he added something even more important: that we will not start from scratch, that we will learn from mistakes. Because common sense tells us that this time there will be no blank page. A basic text already exists, whose modification could bring positions closer together.

He also made it clear that the process will not consume politics. Public security and inflation, among others, require urgent attention, for which a cabinet reshuffle is in order.

Undoubtedly, changing the faces won’t be enough. The narrative, priorities, and expanding the government coalition will be crucial too to steady the ship.


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