Chile’s search for harmony in the middle

Voter rejection of a proposed new constitution has encouraged political rivals to seek unity over political division.

Senators in Chile's legislature hold a discussion before a vote Oct. 4.

Societies convulsed by mass protests are often left wondering afterward if anything has changed. One place finding an answer is Chile. Three years ago, the South American country was rocked by violent demonstrations over economic inequality. Now it is starting to realize that achieving such aspirations depends more on humility than on violence.

That insight may be the discovered gemstone after a political defeat for the country’s young new president, Gabriel Boric. A former student activist, he came to office earlier this year vowing to overhaul a political and economic system largely designed under Chile’s former dictator, Augusto Pinochet. But his plan, embodied in a proposed new constitution, fell apart in September when 62% of voters rejected the far-reaching document.

The vote was a moment of “highly unusual” electoral maturity, as The Financial Times called it. By mid-October, Mr. Boric’s public approval had collapsed to 27%. But notably, his opponents, who control the legislature, have urged unity over one-upmanship. That gesture toward finding common ground provides a model for other societies, from Iran to Sri Lanka, that have erupted in protests and are seeking their own pathways to democratic renewal.

“There are moments in the life of countries ... that require greater efforts of nobility and more resolute wills to reach agreements that allow us to live in peace,” wrote Javier Macaya, a senator and leader of an opposition party, in Chile’s main newspaper, El Mercurio. “We live in a time when we should all think about Chile – not in what is best for our group, faction, party, or political project.”

Senator Macaya, a former lawyer and professor, has a record in politics of speaking passionately against any one side overly asserting its will. He is one of the few opposition leaders whom Mr. Boric consults regularly. In a Twitter post that was echoed or endorsed earlier this month by many of his colleagues in other parties, he denounced making political capital out of the draft’s defeat: “To ‘make use of victory,’ ‘humiliate the vanquished,’ or ‘put the government between the sword and the wall’ ... is to make everything polarized again. Let us not repeat past mistakes!”

Mr. Boric expressed similar restraint in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly a few weeks after the constitutional referendum. “The results were the expression of citizens who ... want a better future built seriously and without adding new uncertainties to the mix,” he said. Politicians, he said, “have to take advantage of the wisdom of our societies and not try to replace it” with their own priorities.

Chileans have a saying: la tercera la vencida. It means that in the third round of negotiations, a deal is closed, and it reflects a cultural norm of building trust through mutual respect. Their rejection of the draft constitution reflected an aversion to what they saw as overreach. But the public’s desire for reform remains. Chastened by the public’s rebuke, Mr. Boric has turned to his opponents in Congress to help find a new approach for constitutional reform. From a first false start, Chileans have found a unity of good on which to build a new structure of democratic ideals.

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