The elections for Chile’s Constitutional Convention show a massive public desire for true social-political transformation and, crucially, provide the means to achieve it.
Elections to the Constituent Convention charged with writing a new Constitution for Chile have yielded a result nobody expected. The left went into the elections divided across many lists, the right was united under one banner, the parties of the social-liberal Concertación under another. Of the total number of 155 seats, polls predicted that the Concertación list would get 45 seats, the right wing coalition, Vamos por Chile, between 56-60 seats. One government spokesperson said, ‘We’re going to win three-nil. We’re going to get the biggest vote, the most constituents and get over a third [of the Convention].’
Hubris comes before a fall though, and the results have, without hyperbole, been a political earthquake. The Concertación parties got 25 seats rather than 45, and the Christian Democrats, Chile’s main political party since the 1960s, were virtually wiped out. Only two members of the Convention were elected on their list, and only one of them is a member of the party. The Right list got 37 seats, not enough to hold a veto over the proceedings, which require a two-thirds majority for approval. Even if they vote together, the centrists and the right can’t scrape enough votes to get a third of the Convention. Their historic stranglehold on Chilean politics is broken for the first time since 1970.
The biggest winners were the independent lists, who together got almost 60 per cent of the vote. The bulk of these are leftwing, among them the 27 members of the ‘People’s List’.
In parallel elections for governors, mayors, and councillors, the results were again a triumph for the left, which ran in loose alliance in many areas. The Frente Amplio did well, winning in Valparaiso, Viña del Mar and the Santiago district of Ñuñoa, with 12 mayors in total and 16 seats in the Convention. The Communists have returned as a party of truly national significance with almost ten per cent of councillors across the country, seven mayors – including the mayor of metropolitan Santiago – showing that they can now attract the vote of large numbers of non-communists. Daniel Jadue, the popular Communist mayor of Recoleta in Santiago, won a landslide majority of 64 per cent, almost tripling the votes obtained by its nearest rival, and is polling well as a presidential candidate.
To top it all, the Communist Party now has seven members of the Constituent Convention and nine members of Parliament. The Party, which was decimated by Pinochet and fought so hard for democracy to return but was then excluded from institutional politics for 20 years, is deservedly relishing its comeback. The victory of the three leftwing groups, the People’s list, the Frente Amplio and the Communists, and of a joint primary between the latter two, points to the emergence of a new dominant pole in Chilean politics.
Commentators are calling it the end of an era. The Concertación alliance is dead, the president of the Christian Democrats has resigned. The Socialists are panicking, they know the political centre has leapt leftwards, but is it in their nature after so many years in power? While it hurts to become junior partners in a new coalition, their 16 seats in the Convention are enough to ensure their continued relevance. In future, the left may need their votes in the Convention, but it will not ever need the association with the past.
It is important to understand that every component of the Chilean system bequeathed by Pinochet and maintained by the Concertación – its economy, its institutions, its state, its democratic mechanisms – absolutely all of it is today in ruins. As one analyst puts it, ‘there is no institutionality to defend.’ So despite the limitations imposed by Article 135 (that a third of the Convention can veto proposals, that the Constitution must respect Chile’s democratic status and that it cannot abrogate free trade agreements), the result of the elections enables the profound changes that society is demanding. This means that what lies ahead is a blank sheet, which, as any writer knows, can be a fearful thing.
Chileans must now begin to conceive of the state and structures they want to breathe life into. ‘Chile will be the tomb of neoliberalism’ is a refrain often used since October 2019, but neoliberalism isn’t just a set of institutions, it is also a set of atomising and individualistic social and cultural norms buttressed by a panoply of non-state and quasi-state organisations. So as Luis Thielemann puts it, ‘how can we organise around collective ends in the ruined kingdom of individualism?’
Chile has the opportunity to truly bury neoliberalism, but the Colombian example shows that a good constitution is only part of the equation. In Colombia, there are rights aplenty, but there was little re-imagining and few mechanisms through which people can exercise power or effective control. Colombia is today undergoing a popular protest movement redolent of Chile’s in 2019, with 43 dead so far according to local human rights groups. So how can Chile avoid a similar fate?
The issue is that while Chileans are absolutely clear on what they do not want, they are less clear on what they do want. The collapse of the existing order creates a vacuum. Social expectation of change is high. This combination means there is little to build upon and effectively requires a political leap of faith by the independents and the political and social movements in the Convention.
The opportunity Chile faces over the next nine months is immense, as is the scale of the challenge. The last time its constitutional and social order was in such a state was in the 1920s. But that was another century and another world. Today, the military shows little appetite for political meddling (although in March this year the High Command published a letter condemning people vandalising the statue of General Baquedano as ‘anti-Chilean’), and the end of the unfair subsidy Pinochet guaranteed them will no doubt sting. Moreover, the Church’s political vehicle is in tatters, its connection to the masses non-existent. In a sign of the changes to come the Constitutional Convention is built on gender parity, and it includes 17 representatives of Chile’s indigenous peoples, who have never before had any institutional role – and the forces of progress have enough representation to push through substantial reform.
There is broad consensus on certain issues within the social movement and the left of the Convention: gender parity, recasting the state as a ‘social’ or welfare state, with rights to housing and education, health and education, as well as rights and some measure of autonomy and linguistic recognition for indigenous peoples, an end to the privatised pension system of the AFPs, a much greater political voice for social movements, a much broader and deeper understanding of social (including sexual rights), a revamped public education system and an end to profit-making universities, alongside much greater protection for the environment.
But how to build this upon one of the most unequal societies on the planet, where a few elite families run the entire country, and where the military and police exist as a privileged caste? Across society there is expectation that those maimed, tortured, killed and imprisoned during the protests will get justice. But what about the past, what about those Mapuche killed in recent years, what about the legacy of the dictatorship? What about the wealth of those, like President Sebastián Piñera, who became rich during the firesale of public wealth during the dictatorship? Where will the Convention decide to draw the line?
Recasting the state’s role will raise questions around its financing. Without adequate funding, the state will be unable to fulfil its duties or implement the required changes, even if it has the will. This in turn raises questions around control of natural resources, which may conflict with commitments made in free trade agreements. Manuel Cabieses, a noted political analyst, writes that this all demands a vision as transformative as that which existed in 1970, when Salvador Allende was elected. And there’s no doubt that there is a thirst for such a vision.
Some among the elite know that if they are to rescue the basis of their privilege they will need to change. Some National Renovation leaders are talking of worker-manager collaboration. And within the left there is some sense that a more inclusive capitalism could be all that is needed. Gabriel Boric, the former student leader who is the Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate, has talked about worker representatives on company boards. History shows capitalism can concede a lot to preserve the essence of the system. If it can survive in its essence, all it takes is time to turn the tables. Whatever the appetites may be in society, the discussions in the Convention may lead to compromises, which may seem minor, but which perhaps trade genuine people power for more superficial changes.
The question is what reforms would be needed to really embed a new system, for only a new system can truly entomb neoliberalism.
If the new constitution is to underpin a truly different system, it needs to start with a different way of defining past, the ‘patria’, the ‘pueblo’ or the ‘nation’. For example, the Bolivian preamble defines the state in relation to Bolivia’s history of anticolonial and social struggle, and defines the purpose of the new state as a ‘state based on respect and equality of all, with the principles of sovereignty, dignity, complementarity, solidarity, harmony and equality in the distribution and redistribution of the social product, where what dominates is the search for ‘living well’, with respect for the economic, social, legal, political and cultural pluralism of the inhabitants of this earth, in collective cohabitation with access to water, work, education, health and housing for all. We leave behind us the colonial, republican and neoliberal states.’ Other constitutions underline the internationalist, Latin Americanist identification of the state, defining it as working towards the integration of the region.
From this new set of definitions could flow the other changes needed.
If the state’s role in the economy is fundamental, then it raises the issue of forms of ownership, planning and methods of exercising control. State enterprises should not just be run like public versions of private companies, workers must have a role in running them. If there is planning, it should involve people and their organisations at every level. If there is control, it must be transparent, and it must be firm enough to be effective. With corruption having grown to endemic proportions in recent years, the new constitution must enshrine drastic punishments for corruption, and ensure as much transparency as possible – through regular audits.
If social movements are to get a real role in decision-making, it requires new forms of representation, with for example, trade union and social movement seats in parliament, or oversight of decisions by social movement bodies, from the top to the bottom of society. There should be decentralised and delegated discussion and decision-making, with separate bodies for indigenous peoples and campesinos, and perhaps other groups.
To dissipate economic power, there should be different forms of ownership of land and property, including cooperative, collective and ancestral forms. But it could go further – some scholars have identified up to 13 categories of ownership, and perhaps a constitution that differentiated more would be effective at preventing too much accumulation. There should be effective limits on monopolies, on media ownership and on transnational ownership, and subsidies for collective property. The constitution could mandate a maximum level of acceptable inequality, with long-term, medium-term and short-term targets for its achievement. In the digital age the constitution would need to define rights to data, define categories of data (including workers’ data, social data, and data pertaining to the biosphere) and regulate access, storage and use of this data.
The judicial system would need to privilege punishment of crimes against the person or society above crimes against property, and it could reverse centuries of Eurocentric tradition by allowing local communities to deliver justice themselves, within constitutionally-mandated limits. This would move away from a professionalised, elitist legal system and towards more natural forms tailored to each individual case.
To rebuild and expand the social structures that reverse atomisation, the constitution must recognise the dialectic relationship between individual and society, recognising that a society has rights as a collective and that the ‘social body’ must be respected as much as that of any individual within it. Rights to education and so on could be framed as inalienable social rights, as could rights to language. The constitution could recognise the requirement for the state to take preventative action against potential harm, which would oblige future governments to ensure healthcare is looked at holistically, with it becoming a central plank of socio-economic activity. And it must recognise that human society is part of an ecosystem, that each generation is simply the steward of this system, this land for the future, while establishing the principles by which the trade-offs between the individual-social, human-environmental and present-future occur. Perhaps it could enshrine the recognition of the existence of rights for mother nature?
To counteract the economic and political forces of imperialism, following Article 9 of the Nicaraguan Constitution, the constitution should identify Chile as part of a Latin American whole, a state that works for the economic, political and social integration of the patria grande. It should establish Chile’s irreversible opposition for violent interventions and economic sanctions, its total respect of non-intervention in domestic affairs and enshrine its identity as part of the global south and a force for peace.
Measures such as these give a flavour of what a truly transformative constitution could seek to do, as part of a project to hand real economic, political and social power to the people. Chile stands at a similar juncture to Bolivia back in 2005. There too, the existing order was illegitimate, exhausted and brought down by a vast social mobilisation. Let us hope that Chile’s new constitution opens the doors for a similar process, one that finally allows the Chilean people to step out of Pinochet’s long shadow into the broad sunlit avenues where a free people may walk as they build a better society.