Now they are changing that by rewriting their constitution
In 1973, a military junta lead by General Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile by military force. After 7 years of rule, in 1980, Pinochet and the junta arranged for a referendum on a new constitution. This new constitution would give him and the junta vast powers and enshrine the role of the military in the government while setting up a transition to democracy on their own terms. Critically, it set a 1988 date for a vote on Pinochet’s reelection and the continuation of military rule.
According to official results, the new constitution passed with 67% of the vote. However, there was extensive evidence of election tampering in various forms. Voters were manipulated and intimidated. The constitution was heavily advertised while opposition ad spending was limited. Blank ballots were counted as “yes” votes. The government never even released a final vote tally.
In the 1988 referendum, the people voted to transfer power to a democratic government rather than continue the rule of the military Junta. Since the transition, the constitution has been amended 42 times by subsequent governments. In 2015, after strong public pressure due to inequality and dissatisfaction with the government, the drafting of a new, more liberal, constitution began. But in 2018, when the conservatives gained power, all work on this new constitution halted.
In 2019, Chileans broke into massive protests over massive income inequality that they see as being caused by the old constitution being written by an oppressive dictator that strongly favored free-market policies. The protests were mostly peaceful especially at first but gradually became less so. The violent nature of the protests led to a violent police crackdown, declaration of emergency, and finally military deployment in Santiago which caused 1000+ injuries and over 20 deaths, along with numerous human rights violations such as torture and sexual assault.
The protests continued for several months until the government agreed to propose a new constitution written by a directly elected assembly of constituents. In October of 2020, the Chilean people voted on whether to draft this new constitution. The referendum passed overwhelmingly with 78% of the vote for creating a new constitution and 79% for doing so by constituent assembly. Included in the referendum was the stipulation that the assembly will be an equal number of men and women, which will make it the first constitution in the world to be written in that way (Undurraga 2020). There is also the expectation that seats will be reserved for indigenous peoples to ensure their representation in the document, though the specifics of that are not yet solidified.
The success of the referendum and eventual passage of a new constitution is a major step for Chile towards combating democratic backsliding and protecting their democracy. Socioeconomic inequality was one of the major driving forces behind the referendum. Inequality is often a driving force behind democratization and resistance to democratic backsliding. Researchers predict that when faced with extreme inequality, the group that feels that they have less will violently revolt or threaten violent revolt and because of this, elites will be incentivized to democratize to prevent this revolution (Acemoglu and Robinson 2006).
The past decade in Chile makes a clear example of elites democratizing in order to prevent revolution. Chileans were upset with the extremely high levels of inequality present in their society and first tried to change it peacefully in 2014 with the pressure for a new constitution. However, when those wishes were ignored, they reacted with violent protests as predicted by Acemoglu and Robison (2006). Then, the government (elites) reacted to the people’s wish to democratize with the proposal of the drafting of a new constitution and for a constituent assembly to write the draft because they feared a violent uprising.
In 2018, the newly elected conservative government halted progress towards the new constitution which undermined the democratic process. A new constitution written by the people instead of an autocrat should be something anyone supportive of democracy would want. The new constitution should be one that benefits everyone because it is written in a far more equal and equitable way, which is likely to create a document that reflects those values. So by not supporting the new draft, the conservative government effectively shows their support for the status quo of massive inequality and a less democratic government.
In general, it is believed that formal systems of government and of checks and balances can be used both to advance democratic erosion and to fight against (Levitsy & Ziblatt 2018). In the Chilean case, both are true. On the one hand, the conservative party was duly elected but then began taking undemocratic actions which were completely allowed. However, on the other hand, the people also used established tools (in the form of the plebiscite) to make the government draft a new constitution that will likely be far fairer than its predecessor. The people used the same plebiscite to make these changes but the plebiscite is the same tool that Pinochet used to ratify his own constitution in 1980, so it’s all about how the tool is used and not the function in and of itself.