From the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States to the Ni Una Menos collective based in Argentina, protests against neoliberal policies and states have increased in the past decades. As neoliberal policies have led to increased economic inequality, movements around the world have taken to the streets to demand justice. These protests have the potential to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions, improving representation and self-determination and contributing to greater social and economic justice.
One such movement that has been successful is in Chile. What began as a protest against hikes in transit fares expanded into protests against neoliberal policies that have led to economic insecurity and wealth disparity. These neoliberal policies were enshrined in the Chilean Constitution that was formed in 1980 during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This constitution was drafted without popular input and approved in a dishonest plebiscite. Therefore, a change to the constitution became the rallying cry for protesters.
Youth and feminist groups were important factions of these protests. On October 14th, 2019, students sparked protests by rejecting hikes in metro fares. Shortly after, the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis performed ‘A rapist in your path’ and demonstrated the power of protest. They wore cloth over their eyes to stand in solidarity with those who became blind due to being hit by rubber bullets and they performed a poem advocating against the patriarchy and a system that is harming them. Their powerful song denounces violence and demonstrates a collective will. This performance drew international attention to the protests happening in Chile and adaptations of this performance were put on all over the world. The youth and feminist actions are just a couple examples of protests that helped to gain broad popular support for the movement in Chile. An important characteristic of these protests was advocating for nonviolence, which Chenoweth and Stephan, in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, argue allows for a level of widespread participation and support that is critical to success. Furthermore, Chenoweth and Stephan have found that “transitions that occur in the wake of successful nonviolent resistance movements create much more durable and internally peaceful democracies than transitions provoked by violent insurgencies”. While this isn’t a transition from authoritarianism to democracy this is a chance for democratic strengthening, a chance to write a constitution that guarantees social rights rather than market conditions.
Despite most protests being peaceful, protesters were met with state violence from troops and militarized police. At least 23 protesters died, 7,000 were detained and over 200 suffered eye injuries. Nevertheless, protests continued in Chile and were eventually met with victory. Protesters were granted a referendum on constructing a new constitution and on October 25th the results were announced with 78% of voters voting for a new constitution. After the results were calculated, President Sebastian Pinera said, “Until now, the constitution has divided us. From today we must all work together so that the new constitution is the great framework of unity, stability and future.” Hearing this from President Pinera, who deployed troops and militarized police to repress the protest, is a hopeful sign for the success of a new constitution. Now Chile is on the path to write a new constitution with the potential to advance social justice and economic justice for the people and overcome the legacy of economic and social oppression enforced through the 1980 constitution.
By the standards of Chenoweth and Stephan, who define a successful campaign as achieving its stated goals within a year of peak activities and having an impact on the outcome, and to the many people watching around the world, the Chilean protests have been a remarkable success. They garnered widespread public support and made demands that were largely unheard of before these protests began. In “The struggle over term limits in Africa: The power of protest”, Janette Yarwood argues that protests aren’t enough to ensure democracy and that building strong and independent judiciaries and legislatures is essential. With the writing of a new constitution, Chileans have the chance to establish the institutional foundation needed for a better democracy.
As part of the referendum, Chileans chose to have the new constitution drafted by a body made up entirely of citizens as opposed to an alternate practice of having a body made up of half citizens and half lawmakers responsible for the process. Gender parity is required in this drafting group and decisions are being made about reserving seats for indigenous groups. Next, in April 2021 Chileans will vote on who will be involved in drafting the new constitution and will have the chance to vote in 2022 on the new constitution. The ability to engage a broad swath of the population in protests, which maintains the power of popular protest as a lever for change, will remain important in order to hold those engaged in the process accountable.
Peaceful, popular mass protest is an important mechanism for change that can help restore trust in democracy and in democratic institutions. Such protests are particularly important for creating a democracy that is representative of everyone, especially those left out of previous institutions, like indigenous people. Chile’s experience can hopefully inform strategies for other countries struggling with insufficiently democratic governments. These movements can pave the way for social justice and less inequality and the creation of democratic systems that work for all.