The time has come to get informed about the Constitution

Chile’s constitutional convention finished work. Its proposal for a new Constitution was just published. But will it convince enough citizens?

The constitutional process is over. From now on, citizens will have to form an opinion and vote in good conscience. We will see if in the two months until the exit plebiscite on Sept. 4 – the historical date of presidential elections before the military coup – the trend reverses in favor apruebo, or approve.

So far, polls suggest voters will clearly reject the proposed Constitution.

In truth, beyond the mistakes made by constitutional convention members, elite discourse hegemony, often based on falsehoods and half-truths, installed an anti-convention environment. In that category falls the cynical, widespread lie that the convention wanted to change the national anthem and the flag, which was never on the agenda. But the damage to the convention’s image was tremendous.

More recently, senator Felipe Kast not only spread but doubled down on his lie that the new constitution would allow abortions until the last month of pregnancy.

Another part of the truth, however, is that constant noise generated by a group of convention members also proved fatal. Media spotlights and grand narratives of re-founding the country sparked distrust among the population. Members who ran on a platform to do things differently turned out inept; a far-right convention member berated her colleagues in widely circulating videos, and some left-wing factions indulged in infighting.

Proposed new Constitution ready and handed over to President Boric

Elite Concerns About the Constitution

Along the way, Chile’s elite became aware that the constitutional proposal would touch key economic privileges and related power, like privatized water rights. If the new Constitution is approved, these rights will change from being permanent to being transitory.

I believe that the emergence of the so-called Amarillos group (The Yellows, a color identified in Chile as being in the middle) highlighted an asymmetry and the deep divorce between our elite and the rest of the population. This elite was never expecting anything like the social uprising of Oct. 18, it predicted the country would collapse if citizens were allowed to withdraw pension savings from the privately-run system, and it failed on many more occasions.

Despite Everything

And still, the convention fulfilled its duties. Within 359 days, it delivered a text prepared by democratically elected citizens that could replace the current one, written behind closed doors during the dictatorship.

But now it’s time to get informed and read the proposal, involving 388 articles and 169 pages. Rechazo, or reject, has emerged as preferred option months ago, even though the complete text was published only on July 4.

It is important that citizens vote based on this text, rather than the categorical judgments with which the elite have polarized this process. This new proposal is far less radical than dominant discourse suggests, which even Bloomberg acknowledged, and will be implemented during a two-year transition period. It is accompanied by 61 complementary laws and 73 regulatory adjustments. The proposal, for example, legalizes abortion, but only to the extent complementary law allows, which currently demands specific reasons like rape or incest.

The text has some elements that adapt the Magna Carta to the reality of our society, for example gender parity. In addition, it reflects a long-standing demand for devolving power to regional and local bodies.

But plurinationality is among its most controversial aspects and a focus of criticism from the elite. Yet, it’s not true that an indigenous justice system is totally autonomous; the supreme court will always have the last word. Most anxiety relates to the proposal to abolish the Senate and create a regional chamber. Members of almost all political colors are at least skeptical because this move threatens their careers. But in practice it would be the Senate with a new name, fewer members and more accommodating to regional needs. Admittedly, changing the name was a political mistake.

The Road Ahead 

What will happen on Sept 4 is clear. Approving the new Constitution implies initiating a gradual process of structural change that will – at last – erase Pinochet’s fingerprints and give way to political debate involving all of society. Rejection will mean leaving everything as it was. That’s the truth. Because the will to change expressed by a right-wing that always opposed change must still be proven. Also, political agreements are practically impossible to achieve in the current polarized Congress.

Hopefully, Chileans will not miss the historic opportunity, which allows us to begin burying the Constitution written among 20 technocrats. Approving would only be the first step in starting that process.

I hope Chile does not become a minority example. The Constitutional Referendum in Historical Perspective project found that of 179 constitutional referendums carried out globally between 1789 and 2016, only 6.1% led to rejecting the proposal. Such an outcome would be sad, because 80% of voters wanted this process in the entry plebiscite.

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