The Case of Chile
North and south. Black and white. Up and down. Opposites do not always attract, and this is especially true in politics. Polar opposites typically leave no room to budge. Yet when polar opposites do come together, it does not necessarily result in beginning of the end. For the citizens of Chile, the concept of political polarization has become a loud reality over the last year. Yet, the political divides in Chile have not yet come to a complete erosion of its democracy. Although there are many cases in which polarization has ended democracy, a brief look at the outcome of Chile’s political polarization shows that there are exceptions to the rule that extreme polarization is the road to democracy’s end.
How it all began:
On October 4, 2019, a sudden hike in the subway fare led to protests that began as small groups of high school students and ended in mass protesting in the streets for more economic and social equality. Although Chile has had one of the most robust economies in Latin American in recent years, income inequality is still high, with more than 30% of the population being “economically vulnerable”. The high rate of economic inequality within this democracy is the central topic over which Chilean political polarization grew.
Shortly after the protests began, Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency throughout the nation and sent military and police forces to crackdown on these protests. Piñera’s response only added to the expanding division in Chile. These crackdown forces soon turned violent, as the police and military began to use excessive methods to suppress the citizens’ protests. Some of these violent methods even included the use of tear gas. Some people lost their lives during these protests.
What is going on now?
The conflict somewhat subsided with the outbreak of COVID-19 in Chile, and, ultimately, the end result was that Chileans voted, on October 25, 2020, to embark on the path towards a new constitution. Chile’s current constitution, written in 1980, is a reminder for many of Augusto Pinochet’s harsh militaristic rule from only a few decades before. As chosen by the citizens of Chile, the new constitution will be a two-year process. The first step will be the election of the 155 members of the constitutional convention on April 11, 2021. After this election, the convention will have nine months to write a draft for the constitution, on which all Chileans will be required to vote in 2022.
What the future holds:
Chile still has a long journey ahead before the new constitution is implemented, and there is no doubt that it will face challenges along the way. Chileans will have to elect the writers of their constitution that will accurately reflect the desires of the general public. In order to do so, elected officials will need to accurately represent their constituencies, whether they be Chileans who are economically vulnerable, of indigenous heritage, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in their government. Additionally, as the constitutional convention is writing the new constitution, there will be presidential and legislative elections in November of 2021. Voter education will be extremely important in 2021, as voters will not only have to educate themselves about the candidates for the constitutional convention, but they will also have to be prepared to elect a potentially new government shortly thereafter.
What does this mean for democracy?
Despite these past and upcoming challenges, it is important for the rest of the world to realize that in the case of Chile, democracy is not completely lost. It is true that Piñera’s military crackdowns on the protests were authoritarian in nature. It is also true that there were human rights violations as a result of these crackdowns. However, to a certain degree, democracy still exists in Chile. Free and fair elections have occurred, and, when the people spoke, they were rewarded with the benefits of this election: a new constitution. Furthermore, those who will write this new constitution will also be chosen by the people through a free and fair election.
Perhaps this level of polarization was needed to begin a change for better. Polarization is ugly at its worst. It is worth noting, however, that even though it can and has ended democracies throughout history, this is not always the case with polarization. The recent events in Chile may be a unique situation in which the scars of the authoritarian history are still fresh enough to serve as a reminder of what could happen if democracy is not handled carefully.
In summary, although polarization can be hideous at its most extreme points, it does not always have to end in the total demise of democracy. Chile has shown that democracy can win in the end, despite the separating lines of the past. As the nation of Chile slowly begins to heal from these political wounds, the world will watch to see if polarization can actually, somehow, continue to end in some good.