In less than a week, Chileans will face one of the most important elections since the return to democracy. People will be voting for new mayors, councilors, and regional governors, but the focal point will be on the elections of constituents. Some 1,300 candidates are fighting for a place at the table of 155, who will draft a new Constitution for the country.
Chilean media dub it the Mega Elections and that is not only because of the enormous number of candidates up for vote this weekend. With municipal, regional, and constitutional elections all held at once, Chileans will cast their votes in four boxes: candidates for 2,252 councilors, 345 mayors, 16 governors ,and 155 constituents – all separated per region, city, and district. Although the elections on regional and local level have their importance, nothing beats the historic weight of electing those who will draft Chile’s new Constitution.
With 138 seats, divided per district, and an additional 17 for 10 indigenous groups in Chile, the writing of the new Constitution promises to become the accumulation of a process put in motion 30 years ago, when Chile transitioned from Pinochet’s dictatorship to democracy – 30 years that left neighboring countries in awe due to skyrocketing economic growth and political stability, but also 30 years of a widening gap between rich and poor that left a large group of lower-middleclass Chileans disillusioned by “the Chilean miracle.” The growing discontent, against a system focused on profit instead of dignity, resulted in a social uprising on Oct. 18, 2019.
Chileans demanded change. And change is what they got: months of protesting, often facing fierce oppression by Chilean authorities, led to a plebiscite on a new Constitution in October 2020, one year after the beginning of this estallido. An overwhelming majority of the voters opted for Apruebo, the pursuit of a new Constitution, taking another step out the shadows of Pinochet’s legacy.
The fact that, for the first time in the world, a Constitution is being drafted by an elected body of an equal number of men and women, is historic. The fact that indigenous people, often seen as second-class citizens in Chile, will have a say at the table, is important to say the least. And although the country’s political parties put all their cards on the table to influence the constitutional process, the participation of everyday citizens in the elections for constituents marks another unique step in a country where political education is scarce. Whatever the outcome, Chile will have a Constitution written by all Chileans.
More Signs of Change
The upcoming elections are historic and a sign of political renovation in a conservative country for yet another reason. For the first time, a bill will be applied that limits mayors and councilors to a maximum number of three consecutive terms. The bill was passed last year and also applies to congresspersons in the elections later this year. For mayors like Sadi Melo, the only mayor El Bosque ever had since it was founded in 1991, or Virginia Reginato, mayor of Viña del Mar since 2004, and dozens of others, the 2021 elections put an end to their terms.
In many municipalities in Chile, mayors and councilors have held power ever since the early years of the return to democracy, enabling them to increase their power in their respective communities and making them more vulnerable to corruption. Making room for new faces with new ideas fits Chile’s current path: no more looking back, but looking towards the future.
A Crucible of Crises
One reason to look at the upcoming elections with caution are the times Chile faces. The country is shaken by crises and Chile is currently like a ship floating at open sea without any direction. Those who should be guiding the wheel have lost their credibility and balance, and are now fighting political opponents from the opposition, their own coalitions, and even their own parties. Especially with the presidential elections ahead, candidates have opted for their own courses and haven’t shied away from criticizing those in charge in desperate attempts to redirect the momentum.
The health crisis has also put the country in a slow idle for over 14 months now and although the elections will be held over two days in an attempt to decrease the risk of new infections, turnout might be lower than usual due to the pandemic – something Chile experienced during the October 2020 referendum, when only 50 percent of Chileans above 18 years voted. Subsequent to the devastating health crisis, an economic crisis has caused thousands of Chileans to lose their job and turn to their pension funds to survive.
The pandemic might have put protests on the backburner, but the social crisis was never over in Chile. With the economic and health crises dominating the lives of ordinary Chileans, the anger and discontent has only grown, and people once again blame the government and major institutions. Chileans don’t trust their president, their government, their parties, or any other political institutions anymore. There is despair in an already shaken country.
Some see the writing of the new Constitution as a solution to all problems – problems aggravated by some constitutional convention candidates themselves, through false promises to win seats. A new Constitution won’t solve all problems. Many are rooted too deeply. But Chile will get a new Constitution that is the result of the blood, sweat, tears, endless marches, cabildos, and asambleas, democracy, and hope, and this just might be the foundation for a new country.