On October 25th, 2020, millions of Chileans at home and abroad voted overwhelmingly in favor of scrapping the 1980 Constitution. Furthermore, the populous voted in favor of establishing a constitutional assembly. This momentous occasion is the logical culmination of the positive impacts direct democratic practices like referenda have on saving Chile’s transition to democracy.
The concept of direct democracy, like many terms in the political realm, can take on many meanings depending on the person. For this blog, the definition of direct democracy comes from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance:
“Direct democracy describes those rules, institutions and processes that enable the public to vote directly on a proposed constitutional amendment, law, treaty or policy decision.”
Integral to direct democratic practices in a national context is referenda. Referenda are initiated from citizen action or triggered by governmental actors. Nevertheless, the voting public gets to decide if they agree or not with the decisions impacting them. Results are meant to gauge individuals’ thoughts on a particular piece of legislation.
Referenda can be a useful tool to refocus the needs and wants of a citizenry. In turn, referenda can act as a catalyst in holding the broader representative electoral actors more accountable to the communities they represent. The cases of the 1988 and 2020 referenda in Chile highlight how this form of direct democracy can initiate and even consolidate democratic norms against the backdrop of authoritarianism.
The referendum of 1988 highlights the immense power and capacity direct democracy can have on pressuring and even ending decades of authoritarianism. The referendum was triggered by a provision in the 1980 Constitution that spelled out Chile’s transition into democracy. The question asked was whether or not the current dictator, Augusto Pinochet, would be the one to lead the country into the new democratic era.
As detailed in Pablo Larraín’s movie NO, Chileans voted 56% for no, a result which rejected Augusto Pinochet as Chile’s leader into a new democratic era. While Pinochet himself tried to annul the referendum, the popular mandate given by Chileans for democracy encouraged members of Pinochet’s junta to accept the results.
After the referendum, Chile moves into a period of contentious democracy. While elections were free, the 1980 constitution left particular obstacles to consolidating democracy. Things like making Augusto Pinochet a senator for life and the establishment of the binomial voting system ensured Chile’s democracy stayed tethered to its former authoritative regime.
Triggered by a $0.04 increase to the standard Santiago Metro fare, the 2019-2020 protests in Chile were rooted in the disillusionment of the governing contract of the 1980 constitution. The protests, which have been marked by both peaceful mobilization and violent repression by the state, convene on an element of the Chilean experience after Pinochet: massive amounts of economic and social inequality.
María Jaraquemada described the issues with the 1980 constitution in an interview with America’s Quarterly.
Chile’s current constitution lacks legitimacy. The constitution was created during a cruel dictatorship, and it has a narrow view of how to organize and distribute power, and of what fundamental human rights are guaranteed – especially economic, social and cultural rights. There is a very neoliberal framing to our constitution. For example, Chile is the only country in the world whose constitution has enshrined the private ownership of water.
On December 23, 2019, President Sebastián Piñera signed into the order of the referendum of 2020 to determine if Chileans wanted a new constitution and, if so, who would create it. It is important to note that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the referendum was postponed to October 2020 instead of the original April 2020 date.
The results of the 2020 referendum are momentous. Over 78% of the Chilean public voted in favor of approving the process to write a new constitution. Furthermore, the mechanism of crafting the new governing document was decided to be through a constitutional convention of 155 elected representatives. Positively, the process has incorporated important measures such as gender parity and dedicated seats for Chile’s indigenous communities.
We can track tangible democratic safeguards through these referenda. One safeguard is the establishment of a unified opposition. Frank Greer, a partner at GMMB who worked on the No campaign of 1988, stated that the success of the referendum was due in large part to political parties “putting aside their differences to work for the vote”. Another safeguard is the increase of citizen mobilization at the ballot box. Since moving from compulsory to voluntary voting in 2012, Chile had seen participation rates in elections drop significantly. In 2009 presidential run-offs, the turnout rate was 87%; in 2013, it dropped to just 41%. However, the referendum of 2020 saw a record number of Chileans participating in the democratic process, with a turnout rate of over 50%.
Referenda reinvigorate Chilean democracy by creating opportunities for citizens to voice their concerns more directly. They create the opportunity to challenge the status quo, uplift a diverse set of voices loudly, and create community around Chile’s democracy. The sentiment is echoed by Lo Espejo resident Javiera Lopez:
“I’ve never felt like I was part of a community before,” Lopez says. “But now we’re remaking a social fabric that was destroyed both by the dictatorship and 30 years of neoliberalism.”
As Chile turns a new page in its political narrative, we need to keep the momentum going and make democracy work for everyone.