Constitutional Process

Expectations About a Path to a New Constitution in Chile

SANTIAGO – After political parties joined together in a historic accord for a plebiscite in April 2020, many are optimistic that Chile is on the way to a new Constitution. What might the constituent process achieve? Political scientist Kenneth Bunker talked with Chile Today about this and related topics.

The plebiscite for a new Constitution inspires strong reactions in Chile. For the first time in decades, Chile has the chance to rewrite its Magna Carta from scratch. 

The plebiscite is set for April 2020, and there is a lot to ask and answer in the meantime, but the process, agreed-upon by the two primary sides of aisle, is a first step towards fundamental changes.

For political scientist Kenneth Bunker in an interview with Chile Today, the accord reflects political figures actually listening to Chilean citizens. Even though the social movement that has shaken Chile for the last month has no specific heads or leaders to address, he believes the plebiscite for a new Constitution does well in setting a “re-foundational spirit, which is precisely what was approved in this accord—to start from scratch.”

  •  How does this process represent an advance for the public’s demands in areas like health, retirement benefits, and education?

I do not think this necessarily represents an advance for the public’s social demands; I think they run on different rails. The new Constitution or the Agreement for Social Peace is a political accord, and, on the other hand, I think the government must keep stepping forward with those demands as they have promised. So even though there will be progress in a new Constitution, I think the government will keep working in the social agenda. The agreement reached Nov. 15 cannot be evaluated by its ability to give immediate or short-term results. A new political Constitution is naturally a long-term solution.

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  • What are the main gaps in this constituent process?


I would not say there are gaps. I would say it is a first step towards a new Constitution. It is a gigantic step; a step that could not be taken since 1990, in 29 years. Even though many sectors have tried to do it [in the past], before we tried it was simply impossible because of how institutions worked; the designated senators and later the binomial system, for instance… There was always a problem. So I think it is a great advance. The document is an agreement where the different parties compromise to step forward. I think that what follows now is to detail and explain exactly how the mechanisms will work.  But I wouldn’t call them gaps: this is just part of the second part of the negotiations.


  • According to La Tercera, if there were no quorum over certain articles during the rewriting of the new Constitution, the constituent body would have to stick to the articles from the previous Constitution. How can we avoid the new Constitution being a simple Reform?


I am not sure about this. As I understand, the new Constitution would start from a blank page. The constituent body needs a two-thirds quorum to agree on any type of article that will go into the final draft. If it is not approved by said quorum, it simply gets excluded from the new Constitution and the measure is then approved by simple majority; or at least that’s what I understand. But I think the Constitution of 1980 in no way stays. Maybe there will be certain proposals to stick to some articles from that Constitution, but it will not necessarily happen that way. What we know so far by what we are given, is that this would be a blank page start.

  •  According to what the process looks like now, is it correct to call it a “victory for the people”?

In part, yes. If the people had not demonstrated as strongly as they have, it seemed impossible to me that we could be where we are now. Obviously, the movement played an important role in this process. Without the people on the streets, without the riot, without all the good, without all the bad, I think it would have been impossible to ever see the government marching towards a new Constitution. It is impossible to look at this constituent process without considering the citizens. If it had only been for the political class, who knows how many more years we would have continued under the Constitution of 1980.

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  • In case of a new Constitution, it is expected it would be ready by 2021. What can Chileans expect from a process that will keep the country in the same spot for around a year?


These processes are long, they take time. I think the people should ask themselves whether they prefer immediate results under an ill-done process, or results from an integral one, where all parties have extended time to discuss legitimate mechanisms. In this sense, I think the agreement guarantees that the country moves forward in the right direction—the route the people requested. If the question is how long we take to do this, I would say it is not a problem if it takes up a year.

As I said before, I believe there will be a social agenda moving parallel, and that short-term results should be seen on that line only. But as a political accord is something intrinsically long-term, it shouldn’t be a problem if it takes more than what the people expect. It is clear that it should be approved by 2021, and we also have to take into account that it can’t happen during elections. Personally, I think it could be approved up to at least six months after the elections, but it can be earlier, too. It all depends on how they work on this.


  • Do you think that this measure will get rid of protests and riots?


I would hope that with this measure, in combination with the social agenda that the government is promoting, there will be a decrease in the number of people protesting.  I think a lot of people will feel their demands heard which is positive. Most of the people that went out to protest who feel the legitimacy of this process and that the government has listened will most probably disappear from the streets. As the number goes down, the rest will most likely be those just to provoke a riot. It is important to reduce delinquency rates, vandalism acts, just as long as the government can keep moving forward with their proposals.

  • What do you think about the government deciding to prioritize this plebiscite over the prosecution of those responsible for human rights violations, for instance?

I think this premise is a false dichotomy. I think the government can do many things at the same time. What was urgent now was to end delinquency and whatever kept cities from functioning normally: to let people go back home, buy food, and let them get to work safely. I think that was an immediate urgency. It was important to tackle that while working on the Agreement for Social Peace and a new Constitution and the social agendas. Having said that, I think it is also important that the government has some kind of agenda to work on human rights violation issues, which we know exist. I think the government should not let that slide.

That is a crucial point to stop protests in the future, and not to waste this process where so many political actors have finally come together. But that will come in its due time. We are still wrapping up this first stage that represents such a great advance. The government should start working on agendas to define how to prosecute armed forces members, who have so clearly committed many human rights violations.

Kenneth Bunker is a political scientist at and columnist for Las Últimas Noticias. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economic. He was chosen in 2016 as “The Most influential Twitter User of Chile in the category Politics and can be found on Twitter at @kennethbunker.

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