Ricardo Lagos approves?

Former president Ricardo Lagos was unclear if he favors a new Constitution in the upcoming plebiscite. The Rechazo (reject) campaign was thrilled, as its leaders thought they’d gained an influential ally. But things aren’t that simple.

Chile’s right-wing was positively surprised when former president Ricardo Lagos made ambiguous comments about his choice in the Sept. 4 constitutional plebiscite.

Lagos did not directly say that he would reject the constitutional proposal, he just suggested that neither Apruebo (approve) nor Rechazo (reject) were viable options and that in any scenario the constitutional process would continue for a long time.

Conservative newspaper El Mercurio – which strongly supports the Rechazo option – seized the supposed opportunity and published a couple days ago a column by an author who goes by the synonym of Joe Black, claiming Lagos supported Rechazo. Lagos reacted annoyed, saying approval was “a good starting point” for the needed changes. These statements surprised the ruling coalition and the opposition, and although they were well received in the center-left, Lagos still didn’t explicitly endorse the Apruebo option.

Lagos and Bachelet

Why did Lagos react annoyed? I think there were two reasons. First, the Joe Black column represented the exuberant confidence in the right-wing that is based on a solid advantage for the Rechazo option in the polls, even though 80% of voters wanted a new Constitution in the entry plebiscite. (However, voting was voluntary then, with barely half the eligible voters turning out, while voting in September will by mandatory.)

Second, former president Michelle Bachelet entered the scenario recently, endorsing the Apruebo option. And of course, she knows she can play an important role in the process that starts on Sept. 5, no matter which option wins. In a way, Bachelet was ahead of Lagos, gaining the advantage in the center-left. Because undoubtedly both Bachelet and Lagos could have tremendous influence in the second half of the constitutional process.

Endorsing the Apruebo option, Lagos would hit the Rechazo option hard, while Bachelet’s announcement was followed by increasing poll numbers for the Apruebo option, which until recently trailed by up to 20 percentage points, now down to 8-10 percentage points. Undoubtedly, several factors, including the appearance of universally loathed far-right leaders in the Rechazo campaign but also the government’s informed voting campaign, helped too.

We are entering a decisive stage. Campaign ads may now be broadcast on TV and radio, reaching the 20 percent of undecided voters. We’ll see if the commitment to keep political parties, especially those of the right, on the sidelines convinces voters that a new Constitution will be coming. The campaigns already added the phrase ‘to reform’ to their respective option…

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