Chile’s constitutional referendum – breaking the binds of neoliberalism?

By Matt Trinder

CHILEANS are heading to the polls this Sunday to decide whether or not to ditch their constitution.

Right-wing President Sebastián Piñera was forced to concede the vote after massive youth-led protests against spiralling inequalities erupted in October 2019.

The 1980 Constitution, overseen by dictator Augusto Pinochet, is seen by many as being essentially designed to protect small state and big business neoliberal policies in Chile.  

It helped make the country one of South America’s wealthiest, but also one with a widening gap between rich and poor.

According to BBC Mundo, wages aren’t enough to cover monthly costs for 60 per cent of households, a worrying statistic in a country where the pension, health and education systems have been partly or fully privatised since Pinochet.

Opinion polls suggest around 80 per cent of voters will support the ‘apruebo’ (approve) option when asked if they want a new constitution, meaning a rare opportunity to change the political landscape in Chile is beckoning.

But what will replace the current set up should things go as predicted? No one knows.

Redaction Politics spoke to Kenneth Bunker, a political analyst and editor of polling site Tresquintos, who argued there were huge risks involved.

He said: “This is the paradox that we’re in right now with Chile. If we change [the Constitution], there’s a risk. We don’t know who is going to write the new [one] or what they’re going to put in it, so inevitably there’s uncertainly tied into that process.

“But at the same time, we know that the current constitution will only bring more trouble. It’s very unlikely that if it remains, any reforms at all will be made.

“The right-wing government in power now would have already made some changes if that were their intention.”

In 1990 56 per cent of the voting public backed a transition to democracy in a referendum.

This ended Pinochet’s regime, which had ousted democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, who died in the process, in a military coup in 1973.

In 2011, a judge ruled that Allende had shot himself after addressing the nation via radio rather than face humiliation by Pinochet’s forces.

Chileans now have a chance to choose a different path.

Aside from being asked on Sunday whether they want a new constitution, Chileans will also vote on what kind of body should be responsible for writing its replacement.

The options are for a so-called “pure” constitutional assembly, made up of 155 specifically elected citizen representatives, or a “mixed” assembly, half being newly elected candidates and the rest existing members of congress.

Polls suggest the former option has more support.

Mr Bunker argued: “I think that [the “pure” option] is probably better because it’s just cleaner to elect 155 members to write this new constitution than it is to incorporate some of the current legislators. It also will bring legitimacy to the whole process when we look back at it.

“The political class in Chile polls very low in competence. People don’t really trust the political class, so [the “mixed” option] would probably make the whole process look illegitimate in the eyes of some observers.”

He felt that radical political change is not guaranteed either way, however.

He said: “At the end of the day it’s going to be the same parties and coalitions that nominate the candidates. These 155 members will be elected by the same electoral system that we use today to elect deputies and senators.”

Indeed, many on the right have thrown their weight behind ‘apruebo’, but Mr Bunker believed this to be a strategic move only.

“Because the route for change is likely to win on Sunday, they’re positioning themselves in places where they can expect to win elections in the future. You’re not going to have legitimacy as a candidate if you were on the ‘wrong side of history.’”

Should history be made this weekend, Mr Bunker warned that those expecting immediate change should brace themselves for disappointment.

He said: “We will not see the results overnight. Anything that you change in the Constitution is going to likely take decades to [translate into] some change.”

Chile’s worsening economic fortunes will be a big factor.

In July, citizens were allowed to withdraw up to 10 per cent of their private pension funds to help alleviate coronavirus-related financial pressures. The pension system is seen as a key factor in Chile’s rise up the GDP rankings over the last 40 years.

Mr Bunker said: “Over the past year, Chile has become a poorer country. There’s a bunch of things that the new Constitution is not going to resolve, it’s just a question of how the politicians will interpret this fact, that the country is not going to be doing better, but at least we’re going to have a new constitution where people will feel that they’re part of the decisions being made.

“In the short-term there may be a lot of uncertainly, and it’s going to be a bumpy road.”

What is more encouraging is the seemingly high-level of youth engagement with the whole process.

Mr Bunker explained: “It is because of young people that we are in this constitutional process today. It was them that mobilised [last year] and ended up forcing a political agreement.

“It’s them that are asking for change.”

He claimed there was a chance that people aged under 35 would for the first time in Chile be the largest voting group on Sunday, partly due to the context of the referendum, and partly due to coronavirus with many older voters expected to stay home.

This is likely to be a historic weekend for Chile, but it is just the start.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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