NATIONAL OPINION

Saving the Constitutional Convention

Pressure has grown on the Constitutional Convention. Polls suggest a slight majority would reject the new Constitution in the plebiscite in September. But the Convention has still time to save the process.

The Constitutional Convention enters its final stretch. On May 16, the first draft will be presented in Antofagasta. On May 17, the harmonization commission will start work and review the coherence and wording of the text until June 9, when it will deliver its proposal to the plenary.

After another review in the plenary, the final text well be voted between June 23 and June 29 and the draft will be officially presented on July 4, one year after the convention started.

Problems over Problems for the Constitutional Convention

But the process has been challenging over the past two months. Controversial articles, calling for completely free abortion or the elimination of the Senate, and severe criticism from conservative sectors and the media have added to internal conflicts. Center-left groups became disenchanted and even began suggesting it was impossible to approve any text. A very unfavorable environment emerged.

A significant turning point came last week when several polls showed a slight advantage for the Rechazo (Reject) option in the plebiscite. The polls raised the alarms, including with Convention members, who, until that day, seemed to remain protected in the bubble that has them locked up almost 12 hours a day six days a week.

The truth is that polls show an equal distribution for Apruebo (Approve), Rechazo and Undecided voters, but the public perception is that doubts grew among voters who approved writing a new Constitution. Remember, almost 80% of voters favored rewriting the current Constitution which originated in the dictatorship, even though it was modified several times by the center-left Concertación or Nueva Mayoría coalitions.

Also read:

Constitutional plebiscite set for September 4

What’s Wrong with the Constitutional Convention?

Members of the Convention have of course contributed to these growing doubts. Some were unable to explain advances or the substance of what the plenary approved, as they already exceed the current Constitution’s 143 articles. A feeling of ideological rigidity is also projected by some members. But no one can deny the major influence of the media either. In Chile, influential oligarchs own TV channels and national newspapers, and they have an interest in undermining the Convention and create an atmosphere of doubt.

To this add comments by right-wing lawmakers like Diego Schalper, who proposed in March that Renovación Nacional – the largest opposition party – should dedicate itself to “taking away moral strength” from the Convention, which certain media must have taken literally.

However, President Gabriel Boric intervened, highlighting the problem was not only communicational, but that it was necessary to seek agreements that create legitimacy. The comment was a clear show of support for the process. In passing, he sent a strong signal, which his coalition’s Convention members picked up, albeit reluctantly.

To the Rescue

Boric decompressed a complex moment and gave rise to a rescue operation. That same day, the Foundation of former president Michelle Bachelet and then former president Ricardo Lagos got involved in the debate. Both urged adjustments to enable approval of the new text. Lagos was clear, saying the discussion must change so “we all vote Apruebo.”

Just as the center-left hesitantly entered the debate to save the process, I think Conventional members must have understood that it is not enough to remain locked up, disconnected from the environment that emerged around them. The goal is to rescue and legitimize the process, and especially protect that moral force Schalper and his colleagues want to capture.

They must also have understood that most citizens want a new Constitution and that the worst thing that could happen would be a rejection of this historic opportunity. A rejection, in addition to causing unforeseeable consequences, would mean throwing away the tremendous effort of the previous months.

Also read:

Here’s what you need to know about the Convention so far

Improvements

Although I agree with Boric that we are facing a political and flexibility problem, I believe the Convention’s communication must improve urgently. The brutal campaign against it cannot be ignored, but that is a fact of life.

Despite the change of tone these days, the Convention needs to define a simple, direct story that projects the substantial changes and how they will impact daily lives. In addition, I would highlight that for the first time we would gain gender parity in the state apparatus, which would be globally significant.

Young people must also get more involved. Polls show especially 18-40-year-olds strongly support Apruebo. And, of course, language that makes some articles look radical should be relaxed. The insistence on removing powers and changing the name of the Senate is irritating. Of course, this sparked criticism from sitting senators, including center-left ones.

The Constitutional Convention still has time to assume the challenge of redirecting some aspects that do not generate consensus and delight a citizenry that mostly wants and expects changes but has legitimate doubts.

Some right-wingers and some powers that be will not abandon their goal of rejecting the text. They want everything to remain the same. That is why I believe Boric’s move, which had a domino effect, is a tremendous opportunity so that in the remaining three months the mood can change. The harmonization commission has the powers and the legitimacy to make amendments, so that on September 4, we vote a text which, more or less, reflects the wishes of a majority of us.

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