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Chile voted to write a new constitution. Will it promise more than the government can deliver?

In a global first, women will make up half the constitutional convention

- October 29, 2020

Chileans went to the polls this past Sunday, in a referendum postponed by the pandemic. On the ballot: Should Chile replace the 1980 constitution written by dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet? If so, who should write the new constitution? The referendum occurred following a year of protests over economic and social inequality, with some protests swelling to over a million people.

With turnout the highest in any election since 2012, nearly 80 percent of Chileans chose a new constitution. What’s more, roughly 80 percent also preferred a constitutional convention composed wholly of everyday citizens, instead of a convention half composed of citizens and half of members of the Chilean congress.

Here are five things our research on political institutions and political representation tells us about Chile’s historic vote.

When politicians are unresponsive for too long, citizens will revolt

Chile exploded in October last year with the most violent and destructive protests in its history. The government had hiked public transit fares, making the cost of one round trip equivalent to about 14 percent of low-income Chileans’ daily wages.

How did a 4 percent fare hike in Chile set off such rage?

Within days, large swaths of Santiago’s historic district were left in ruins, dozens of metro stations were damaged or set ablaze, and demonstrations spread across the country. The protesters demanded better public services, higher pensions, lower-cost education and an end to violence against women.

Protesters took issue with the country’s unjust economic system and declared its politicians unresponsive. Chile is among the least equal countries, according to rankings by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: The wealthiest 10 percent in Chile receive 40 percent of the income, and the rich and the poor occupy two different worlds.

The political system Chileans inherited from the Pinochet era long stymied reforms. The country returned to democracy in 1990, but the constitution gave the president and the constitutional court disproportionate power over legislation and policymaking. The election system made it difficult for parties on the left to win. Incumbents enjoyed huge advantages and the National Congress overall could pass laws only if high quorums were met. These factors helped create an unresponsive and insular political class with little ability or incentive to address rising political and economic inequality.

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Chilean voters sought deep reforms

Chile saw a steady and steep decline in public support for almost every institution in society, starting in the mid-1990s. The usual suspects were the National Congress and political parties, but Chileans also expressed their dislike for the Catholic Church and the police.

The protests over the past year demonstrate the depth of this mistrust and even anger. After the initial spark, violent protests continued until the coronavirus arrived, allowing the government to take advantage of lockdowns. However, the protests resumed in September, coming to a head on the anniversary of the October 2019 uprising. Protesters destroyed property, including two churches, and police arrested nearly 600 people.

Given this context, polls predicted the referendum outcome — but underestimated the large margin of support. As the final vote tallies emerged Sunday night, thousands of people danced and cheered in Santiago’s main avenues.

Chile’s political class retains some advantage in formulating the new constitution

In choosing the citizens’ constitutional convention, voters empowered the voices that led the protests: students, workers, women, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. For instance, the Constitutional Assembly will have seats reserved for indigenous peoples, finally recognizing the exclusion and exploitation of groups like the Mapuche.

Chilean protesters are waving the Mapuche flag. What’s the Mapuche flag, and who’s hoisting it?

Not everyone agrees. In the three wealthiest districts of Santiago, the majority rejected rewriting the constitution. This group may have lost this round but could regain ground in the next steps.

That’s because the process for choosing the delegates to the constitutional convention does not entirely cut out the usual suspects. First, while anyone can run for a seat in the constitutional convention, the rules favor people with previous political experience. Political parties will field the candidates, and political insiders have an edge in obtaining nominations. And while convention delegates cannot run for office for one year after the convention concludes — and sitting members of the congress cannot run — nothing bars former officeholders from throwing their hats in the ring.

Second, in the convention itself, every element of the new constitution requires approval by two-thirds of the delegates. The objective, according to the Chilean authorities is “a high degree of consensus.”

Half of the delegates will be women, making history

Chile’s new constitution will be the first in the world written by a body with gender parity.

This outcome reflects a long battle by women and feminist movements not just in Latin America, but across the globe. As countries democratized in the post-World War II era, women argued that “without women there is no democracy.”

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Argentina adopted the contemporary era’s first gender quota law in 1991, requiring political parties to run women as 30 percent of their slate. Gender quota laws spread rapidly across Latin America in the 1990s — but Chile held out before adopting a 40 percent gender quota in 2015.

As Chile debated the referendum’s terms in November last year, feminists used the hashtag, “never again without women.” Congresswomen assembled inside the National Congress, chatting “we are half, we want half” — a demand for half the constitutional convention seats. Their victory suggests citizens prefer diverse decision-making bodies, which Jennifer Piscopo and her co-authors show conveys legitimacy.

Few democratic countries actually rewrite their constitutions

Usually, countries write new constitutions when ending civil wars or transitioning from a dictatorship to a democracy — like Tunisia after the Arab Spring. It’s pretty rare for a country that’s already a democracy to decide to rewrite its entire constitution.

Many citizens over the past year have taken to the streets to express discontent, from Lebanon to Belarus. Protests often have been violent — as they were in Chile — but so far, only Chile has undertaken to rewrite its founding charter.

Chile faces a rocky road. Constitutions are frameworks: They establish citizens’ rights and processes for governments to make decisions. In this sense, constitutions are usually not specific policy statements. Some analysts fear Chile’s constitutional authors will go too far and promise benefits the government will find difficult to deliver later.

But Chile suddenly has a track record of unprecedented moves, from the referendum itself to a constitutional convention convened with gender parity. If Chile successfully drafts a new, inclusive social contract that balances competing interests, and if a popular majority approves that constitution in a referendum scheduled for 2022, Chile can continue making history.

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Jennifer M. Piscopo (@jennpiscopo) is an associate professor of politics at Occidental College. Her research focuses on women, politics and elections.

Peter Siavelis is a professor of political science at Wake Forest University and author of “The President and the Congress in Postauthoritarian Chile” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010).