Even though a constitutional change might be an effective way of handling the current crisis in Chile, it is contingent on other factors whether the new constitution can be an antidote to Chileans’ problems.
Will adapting a new constitution ensure equality and social demands of citizens, as Chileans anticipate? Will a new constitution prevent further public outburst among citizens? Chile decided to form a Constitutional Convention which is tasked with a highly crucial assignment: preparing a new constitution that will solve the ongoing economic, political, and social problems that country and its citizens have been suffering for years. Many blame Pinochet Constitution for being the root cause of the current situation. A new constitution is perceived as the antidote among masses. In this regard, we should discuss the draft constitution and its preparation process to assess whether it can be an antidote or not.
Triggered by the increase in public transportation fees, Chile has been through massive street demonstrations between October 2019 and December 2021. The social unrest enlarged due to the political dissatisfaction of Chileans, mainly from President Piñera and his government. President Piñera was widely criticized of failing to fulfill his main campaign promises: economic growth, jobs, and security by the citizens and opposition actors in the country. Unable to provide demands of citizens, Piñera government failed to restore stability and peace, causing social unrest to spread over millions of Chileans and evolving into a violent one.
In order to sustain the order, Piñera administration decided to hold a plebiscite to ask citizens whether to draft a new constitution to replace the so called “Pinochet-Constitution. Piñera administration’s solution of changing the constitution is no surprise given the importance of the document. The result of plebiscite was 78% in favor of a new constitution. Cordially, a Constitutional Convention was elected in May 2021, which ended up with being left-wing dominated.
The Pinochet Constitution is widely criticized due to its neoliberal tendencies, free market agenda, and inducing privatization of public services and military. (Hill, 2022) These elements are perceived as factors that endeavor the inequality within the country. Defenders of the constitutional change point that being the wealthiest Latin American state, Chile is yet to be the third most unequal OECD country with an income gap that is 65% more than the average. The reason of this inequality is thought to be embedded within the Constitution, indirectly, with the system it suggests. As mentioned, its neoliberal tendencies are accused of being burden of broadly shared prosperity. Current Constitution of Chile was drafted by the directive of Pinochet himself, who is known with his opposition to socialist ideology, against which he had executed a coup d’étatin 1973.
Given the history and current status quo, I believe the main expectation from the Convention was “undermining the inequality among citizens.” I don’t limit the concept of inequality to economic inequality : it also covers inequality in political and social issues. For example, formation of Convention was based on broad representation to ensure political inclusion, a serious demand of citizens. Basically, it isn’t consisting of “usual suspects” of political life. Rather, it gathers people of different ethnic background, religion, language, and gender to discuss the problems of Chile. According to some, it is the most representative body in history of Chile.
The Convention presented the draft constitution on May 13, 2022, and it is set to be voted on September 4, 2022. President of the Convention, María Elisa Quinteros, stated that “This is an ecological and equal constitution with social rights at its very core.” She also added that they specifically focused on responding the demands of citizens during the 2019- 2021 demonstrations. The draft Constitution is a maximalist one with its 499 articles. It ensures many rights and freedoms such as free higher education, gender equality within government, tasks government to take an action against climate change. It also involves a recognition to the indigenous people of Chile.
Can It Be the Antidote?
Latest polls show that Chileans lost their initial enthusiasm regarding the constitutional change as 46% state they will vote against on September 4. (Hill, 2022) In my opinion, rather than discussing the result of this referendum, we should rather elaborate on the transformation Chile has been going through after Pinochet regime and how this constitution-making phase affects it.
It is certain that the country faced a drastic democratization period and people of Chile are familiar with fighting for their rights and freedoms. Debates over current constitution haven’t started with 2019 demonstrations. This Constitution has been debated starting from 1980, the date it went into force. Some scholars even consider the 1980 Constitution (a.k.a Pinochet Constitution) illegitimate due to two main points: first, its drafting commission wasn’t representative, the members were appointed by Pinochet government; second, referendum it was accepted through was conducted under the controversial regulations of Pinochet government. These two points, with their effect on legitimacy of constitution, have been an issue of ever since. Thus, I believe a representative constitution making process with a referendum in accordance with law; regardless of the outcome of elections; was and is needed in Chile. Formation of Constitutional Convention and its diverse membership distribution is a good example of this fulfillment. It may provide the reassurance Chileans needs.
On the other hand, a constitution is basically a social contract between citizens and government. It sets forth basis of political system by pointing the rights & freedoms of citizens and determining the authority of government. However, Pinochet Constitution is often accused with inability to channel citizens’ needs and demands with the political system it suggests. As a result, it causes citizens to alienate themselves from the government and its practices, resulting with social unrests.
A way of dealing with this problem is to make demands of citizens visible on national level. This can be done via political inclusion, which must be guaranteed under law, ultimately the constitution. Yet, for this constitution to be a solution factors such as citizens’ participation rate to referendum and their trust in the upcoming system will play a crucial role. More importantly, the new constitution may offer better equality, but if it is approved, it will take some time to see how these articles are implemented in the system and how successful they are. Therefore, I agree with the opinion that a constitutional change in Chile may be an antidote to the crisis’s country has been going through, at least offer a step forward by removing a production of Pinochet governments, but one must wait for the approval and implementation steps before reaching a conclusion.