A strange creature has been growing on the Chilean right: The Apruebo supporter. But rather than ordinary voters, most of them are in leadership positions, which could lead to a profound reconfiguration of the right and consequently the political landscape. Clearly, the plebiscite on Oct. 25 is a turning point, showing the country’s future has rarely been so open.
Not even President Sebastián Piñera could stay neutral. In September he published 10 points a potential new Constitution should contain. With the move, Chile Today columnist Germán Silva Cuadra wrote, Piñera signaled that he anticipates the inevitable and wanted to create an opening for the right to leave its imprint on the new Magna Carta.
Yet, Benjamín Ugalde, a philosophy professor at Universidad de Chile, and Mireya Dávila, public affairs assistant professor at the same university, told Chile Today that right-wing support stems mostly from “opportunism.” This development, Dávila said, could strengthen the far right.
Ugalde also said that right-wing Apruebo support exposes that “some ideas of the right have deteriorated” and will further alienate voters, most of whom will opt for Rechazo (reject), voting against creating a new Constitution.
A Right Divided
The rift between leaders and led on the right has opened during the social uprising, when many Piñera supporters accused the president of acceding to the left – because he reached out to the opposition – and a soft response to looting and destruction. These accusations emerged even as Piñera keeps backing general Mario Rozas, under whose watch Carabineros police have been repressing protests violently, and although he mulled a full-blown military crackdown, which did not happen only because the armed forces high command refused.
Like most right-wingers, Piñera’s always defended the current Magna Carta because it fixes a consumer-capitalist framework and is a trophy in the victory over socialism. But he also recognized that it is lid on a societal pressure cooker.
Piñera agreed to the referendum as part of a transversal agreement from Nov. 15, 2019. The agreement was a last resort at the final hour. As the social protests reached boiling point and it became clear the executive would fail to impose a state of siege, Piñera was looking at the prospect of presiding over an imploding state. The transversal agreement was crucial to calm the streets, and agreeing to the referendum was a small price.
More Leaders Join
Among the first right-wingers to openly campaign for a new Constitution was Joaquín Lavín, the mayor of Santiago’s flush Las Condes district and prospective presidential candidate. He’s even presenting himself as “the face of Apruebo” on the right.
Lavín was economics editor at El Mercurio newspaper, which disseminated CIA-funded anti-Allende propaganda and lies to bolster the dictatorship, in the early 1980s. He also published a tome in defense of Pinochet’s economic reforms and social engineering, enabled by the Constitution.
But now Lavín sees an opportunity to “heal wounds” and “define the country we want to have.” He told newspaper La Tercera in August that the right fears small change because it could lead to big change. Yet, the “elite already lost power and shouldn’t be afraid” to lose it with a new Constitution. “This moment is a great opportunity,” he said.
Lavín’s party, however, Independent Democratic Union (UDI), decided early on to support Rechazo, together with the head of newly formed Republican Party, José Antonio Kast, who’s an open Pinochet supporter. To reconcile his party’s ideology and his own politics, Lavín turned to extreme pragmatism. He told La Tercera that he doesn’t “participate in party politics” and notions of left and right were obsolete.
But not just from the center-right comes support for Apruebo. Lavín’s party colleague, Pablo Longueira, is not interested in healing wounds. Longueira, who is facing corruption accusations, still influences debate in the country. He published an open letter, saying he hopes Apruebo gains at least 85%, and a constitutional convention, where all members are democratically elected , would write the draft. Longueira criticized the fear campaign fueled by nonsense about socialism and Venezuela. Instead, Longueira said, right-wingers must “fight for their ideas.” Constitutions would complete cycles, and while the current one had enabled millions to leave poverty its cycle is ending.
He proposes government coalition Chile Vamos and the Republican Party join forces and aim for a 33% representation at a possible constitutional convention. That would be a victory similar to the one the right achieved in 1989, when 43% voted in favor of the dictatorship. Invoking the authority of Jaime Guzmán, the Constitution’s architect, Longueira said Guzmán told him that the 1989 result was great because “had it gone 70/30 no stone would have remained unturned.”
Opportunism and Playing with Fire
Universidad de Chile’s Ugalde, however, thinks that figures like Longueira and Lavín are “going the opportunistic route,” with an eye to next year’s elections. Their “refoundational animus,” aiming to redefine the right, will only damage its foundations. Pushing for a Constitution written on a “blank page” will delegitimize the achievements of the current one, he said. This would affect the right.
And Mireya Dávila told Chile Today that support for Apruebo represents a problem especially for UDI because it could supply “votes to the hard right and those that criticize the government for heeding the left…It’s a flight of votes to the right.”
A weakened or reformed UDI would have profound implications for national politics, because the party has around 100,000 members, nearly 60,000 more than the president’s National Renewal, and just about 23,000 less than the Socialist Party. The post-referendum UDI will hint at where the country is headed.
Dávila also said high-profile right-wing support for Apruebo is enabled by “a less ideological reasoning of open defense of the dictatorship. The key [development] will play out in the drafting of the new Constitution.”
This suggests, paradoxically, that the long established trend toward the normalization of the dictatorship is intensifying. And not even a new Constitution could solve this problem.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).