On September 4, 2022, Chileans were offered a new path forward for their country. A new constitution had been drafted to replace the Pinochet era version, and Chilean citizens had the opportunity to vote on this new constitution. 13 million people showed up to the polls, and 62% of them rejected the new constitution. This result could be seen in contrast to the 78% of Chileans who voted to rewrite the constitution only two years ago. The new constitution that was rejected by voters on September 4 covered several desirable additions. These included gender parity, increased indigenous autonomy, sweeping environmental protections, and many more. Many Chileans see this as a missed opportunity for the country, and it very well might be. But democracy often lets us down. The rejection of the new constitution was not an example of democratic erosion. The referendum is an illustration of how to protect democracy while allowing it to adapt to the needs of citizens today.
Chile has needed a new constitution for years. The current one is from 1980 when Pinochet, a dictator, was in power. After a US-backed coup against the democratically elected President Allende, Augusto Pinochet took control of the country using the military. In order to entrench the military’s power, as well as Pinochet’s own position, a new constitution was drafted. It was put to a vote in a referendum, except this one was marked by voter fraud. Since then, there have been a number of amendments passed, but never a new constitution. Pinochet’s legacy remains past the constitution. Inequality is still a problem in Chile. 53% of households are classified as economically vulnerable, well below the OCED average of 39%. This inequality created some of the strife that led to the 2019 protests. Those protests could have been followed, like so many other countries, by a leader who capitalized on the resentment to their own advantage. Instead, the protests lead to the democratic process working as it is meant to.
The new constitution championed by President Boric was undoubtedly ambitious. If passed, it would be unlike any other constitution in the world. But it was not without problems. Chile remains a relatively politically moderate country. The proposals in the constitution were remarkably progressive. After electing a leftist president for the first time in years, some thought that maybe the country was ready for abrupt change. Some of the articles included would also be expensive, which would be a significant departure from what the government currently spends. While it is impossible to know why every person voted against it, it was likely too much too soon. The country was ready to move forward, but not to the extent the constitution proposed.
The constitutional referendum in Chile has implications for democracies everywhere. Constitutions have the capacity to protect democracy or aid in its erosion. Chile’s current constitution has put limitations on the extent of equal democracy possible in the country. A strong constitution well-tailored to modern issues is a powerful tool against democratic erosion, specifically executive coups. This referendum was important because it allowed Chileans an opportunity to expand their democracy. They did not choose this specific path, but they still want that opportunity, and will likely have another chance to vote on a different version. This presents a lesson for democracies around the world. Constitutions must occasionally be updated if the people require it. Not all efforts to renew the constitution will succeed. But, as long as the institutions that allow that failure are strong, the process of trying can lead to a better fit.
In 2019, when their constitution was not working for them, Chileans mobilized and made their government work toward a solution. The full extent of their success will not be known until they pass a new constitution, and this will likely happen. There is an enthusiastic will to see it completed and done right.
Chile has a long road ahead filled with plenty of challenges to its democracy. It has experienced election misinformation and increased polarization in recent years. The country will have to face these challenges and move on the path to a better-suited democracy, but it will be worth it. Through a referendum that allows people the power to find a constitution that suits them, Chile’s democracy will evolve to become stronger.
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