Write a new constitution? After year of protest, Chileans vote.

Why We Wrote This

A constitution is more than the backbone of the law – it’s a national symbol. Does Chile need a new one? After months of protest, citizens are debating just how far reforms should go. 

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
Demonstrators hold bicycles in front of a riot police vehicle during a protest against Chile’s government, in Santiago, Chile, Sept. 25, 2020.

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Forty years ago, when Chile last approved a constitution, Augusto Pinochet was in charge – the right-wing dictator whose rule was defined by violence and impunity. Should that document still be the law of the land?

Chileans will vote on just that question Oct. 25, in a national referendum that follows months of protest. Last October, the country was overwhelmed by demonstrations first sparked by an increase in subway fares. But citizens’ frustrations snowballed, including low pensions and poor public services. The current setup, some Chileans say, doesn’t give citizens enough of a voice – prompting calls for a new constitution. 

A vote was scheduled for last April, but postponed amid the pandemic. Meanwhile, analysts say, the stakes have only grown. For the past decade, satisfaction with democracy has been on the decline in Latin America. Will a referendum help restore Chileans’ trust? And can it do so without adding further chaos amid the pandemic? 

Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow at the international think tank Chatham House, is skeptical a new constitution could deliver the change citizens are clamoring for. But “if any country is equipped to deal with this in a fashion that’s constructive,” he says, “it’s Chile.”

Chileans are set to vote Oct. 25 on whether to rewrite the nation’s constitution, which dates back to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Can a new take curtail widespread protests and frustration with a government many say doesn’t give enough voice to citizens?

Why now?

In October 2019, Chile was overwhelmed by nationwide, anti-government protests, initially sparked by an increase in subway fares. But protesters’ frustration snowballed as other complaints emerged, including low pensions, poor public education, and subpar public health care. On Nov. 15, 2019, President Sebastián Piñera’s conservative government came to an agreement with the opposition to explore the possibility of a new constitution.

The referendum was initially scheduled for last April, but was postponed as the new coronavirus swept the globe, leading to lockdowns and public health crises across the Americas. In the vote, Chileans will decide not only if the constitution will be rewritten, but also by whom: a newly elected Constitutional Assembly, or a commission made up of existing members of Congress. and new delegates, who would be elected next April.

The commission would have a year to create a new document that would require two-thirds majority approval for each article. Ratification would take place through another referendum vote at some point in early 2022.

What is the vote on?

Chile’s current constitution was approved in a controversial referendum in 1980, the height of a right-wing dictatorship responsible for thousands of deaths and defined by violence and political impunity. Those demanding a new constitution say the fact that the current document was drawn up under a dictator should nullify its legitimacy. The constitution was reformed in 1989 and 2005, but critics feel the large congressional majority needed to change laws makes it too easy for small, fringe parties to stand in the way of citizen demands. There’s more emphasis put on protecting private property and business interests than on rights like public health, education, and social security, critics say.

For those against the idea of a constitutional rewrite, the idea of changing a document that has delivered three decades of steady economic growth – making Chile an “oasis” in Latin America, according to President Piñera – is a dangerous gamble. The peso’s recovery stalled in the third quarter of this year, as the referendum drew closer. Others fear the process will be too nitpicky and drawn out, creating further impetus for protesters to take to the streets while COVID-19 is still spreading.

Polls show about 70% of Chileans support a new constitution, with just over 90% saying they want rights to education and health care guaranteed under law.

What’s at stake?

Trust in democracy, for one. The decision to hold a referendum on the constitution in response to public protest was a big one, particularly in a region where trust in government fell from 45% in 2010 to 22% in 2018, according to the latest results from the Latinobarómetro public opinion poll. Satisfaction with democracy has been on the decline in Latin America for the past decade, as violence and perceptions of corruption increase. The public health concerns delaying the initial vote were valid, but any further speed bumps could feed protesters’ perceptions that the government isn’t concerned with their demands.

“The stakes have gotten higher” since the vote was postponed, says Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank. Citizen frustrations over the quality of public services like health care or transportation, or access to formal jobs with benefits and pensions, have only been exacerbated during the pandemic, he says.

There are also economic concerns. The length of the entire process, including the likelihood of disagreement on how best to move forward after the October vote, could lead to months of uncertainty for international investors.

Although Mr. Sabatini is skeptical a change in the constitution will deliver the structural, systemic change citizens are clamoring for, he is hopeful the nation will navigate its way through this tense moment, given its track record for stability and a culture of adhering to norms and rules. “If any country is equipped to deal with this in a fashion that’s constructive, it’s Chile.”

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