Chile Says No to Revolution

This month, Chilean voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed new constitution. While disinformation played a part in the outcome, the draft’s far-reaching reforms alienated many voters who otherwise would have supported the rights it sought to enshrine.

The popular rejection of Chile’s proposed new constitution was expected. Its magnitude was not. This month, nearly 62% of the 13 million voters who turned out said no to the draft, which was to replace the constitution written during Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

The overwhelming repudiation of the new constitution is a blow to President Gabriel Boric, who supported it. Moreover, it clearly showed that the Constitutional Convention that drafted it went far beyond the aspirations and convictions of the Chilean electorate.

Boric, a former left-wing legislator who was elected last year, championed the draft written by an assembly largely comprising his allies and companions. As such, he is partly responsible for its failure. While he has already announced a cabinet reshuffle following the referendum loss, he will now be forced to make more tough decisions: which policies to pursue and advisers to keep, and how to keep the reformist promises he made during his campaign.

It is hard to pinpoint what turned Chilean voters against the proposed constitution, but there is no doubt that fake news and disinformation played a part. It was not difficult to convince voters who had not read the draft’s 170 pages and 388 articles that their homes would be taken away, that they would lose their private health-care benefits and pensions, that abortion would be legal through the ninth month of pregnancy, and that Chile was about to turn into the next Venezuela.

Nevertheless, the proposed constitution’s wide-ranging political and judicial reforms repelled many voters who otherwise might have endorsed many of the social and economic rights it meant to enshrine. The draft designated Chile as a “plurinational state” and granted indigenous people rights and protections they have long been denied. But it also sought to abolish the Senate and called into question the country’s independent and well-respected judiciary by seeking to establish a separate system of indigenous courts. It also included far-reaching environmental protections that, while popular with activists, frightened many others.

The proposed draft would have guaranteed over 100 new rights – more than any other constitution in the world. It sought to make universal health care a right, establish gender parity in the executive and legislative branches, strengthen labor unions, and tighten mining regulations. Some economists, including the finance ministers of previous center-left governments, thought all this would cost too much. But the proposal could have appealed to a diverse array of constituencies and easily captured more than half the electorate. Instead, it alienated voters who concluded that it would move Chile too far to the left.

This was not the way it was supposed to happen. When mass protests against the previous right-wing government erupted in October 2019, demonstrators adopted the slogan “No son 30 pesos, son 30 años” (“It isn’t about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years”) – a clear message that young people were angry about a lot more than the small metro fare increase that catalyzed the movement. Chile’s youth were not impressed by the economic growth and poverty reduction in the three decades since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Instead, young people raged against high student debt, expensive private health care and pension schemes, extreme inequality, and a broader, more intangible sense of exclusion.

For a while, the country’s progressive left seemed to be on a roll. In October 2020, nearly 80% of Chileans voted in favor of drawing up a new constitution. Later, the academic Elisa Loncón Antileo – an indigenous Mapuche woman – was elected president of the newly-created Constitutional Convention. In December 2021, Boric – a 35-year-old socialist and former student activist – defeated the far-right presidential candidate, José Antonio Kast, by a large margin.

But Boric’s first months in power were rough, owing to the economic damage Chile suffered during the pandemic. GDP growth slowed, the budget deficit widened, inflation rose, violent crime increased (albeit from a low level), and Boric’s coalition struggled to keep its more radical members in line. Despite taking office as the new constitution was already receiving its finishing touches, voters came to associate Boric with the proposed draft, which did not help his plummeting poll numbers.

Given this, the results of this month’s referendum should not come as a surprise. Chileans are more conservative than the events leading up to the vote would suggest, and are generally wary of attempts to break with what many consider a long period of prosperity.

In the 30 years since the fall of Pinochet, Chile moved from low- to middle-income status. Its economic development has been slower than expected, and there is still much work to be done. But nearly two-thirds of Chileans have signaled that they do not want to jeopardize that promise. They probably still want a new constitution, but they want social democracy, perhaps even Christian social democracy. What they definitely don’t want, they showed this month, is a revolution.

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