By Peter M. Siavelis*
An agreement between the Chilean government and opposition to hold a referendum in April on whether to scrap the current Constitution — legacy of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship — has helped reduce tensions throughout the country and signaled that stakeholders are willing to compromise in order to reestablish Chile as a model of stability in a tumultuous region.
- The most significant, violent, and deadly protests since the end of the Pinochet era exploded in Chile on October 20, after several years of simmering protests and social discontent. The protests, accompanied by looting, attacks on property and infrastructure, and 23 deaths, represented a turning point. Widely billed in the press as sparked by opposition to increased transport fees, this social mobilization represents a much wider demand for a fundamental rewriting of Chile’s prevailing social contract. It shocked the international community and Chileans alike, challenging the idea that Chile was a model of peace and economic development in a regional sea of economic crisis and social conflict.
- The initial response of center-right President Sebastián Piñera’s government only created more conflict. Calling protestors delinquents and terrorists, and contending the country was at war with itself, he conjured uncomfortable parallels with the dictatorship. Widespread evidence of human rights abuses by police and security forces reinforced these parallels.
Piñera eventually bowed to public and elite pressure and announced a set of immediate reforms, including boosting the minimum wage and pension payments, cutting the price of medicines, lowering public transportation costs, slashing electricity prices, implementing higher taxes for the rich, and reducing the salary of members of congress, who are the highest paid in the region. For the longer term, Piñera acquiesced — one month after the initial explosion of protests — to a process to potentially scrap Chile’s 1980 Constitution, which was also the target of protesters’ ire. The agreement, dubbed acuerdo por la paz y una nueva constitución, grew from intense negotiations between the government and political parties. It was approved in Congress by a wide margin (127 in favor, 18 against, and 5 abstentions).
- The legislation establishes that on April 26 a nationwide plebiscite will ask Chileans whether they want a new constitution and how it is to be drafted, with two simple questions: if the voter wants a new constitution, and, if so, if the voter prefers a “Constitutional Convention” or a “Mixed Constitutional Convention.” The former will entail a constituent assembly of citizens elected by the population, and the latter a body of one-half members of Parliament and one-half private citizens.
- Most polling shows over 80 percent of Chileans in favor of a new constitution, and a large majority of those preferring a constitutional convention — an indication of the low regard in which Chilean politicians are held by the public. Whatever mechanism is eventually used, a second plebiscite will be held at a date to be determined for ratification of the new constitution.
The agreement left elements of both sides dissatisfied. The right grudgingly accepted the arrangement, but its more extreme elements remained concerned that a Constitutional Convention will establish social guarantees similar to those of Venezuelan Chavismo and undermine social peace and Chile’s development. More progressive signatories of the agreement added their support, thrilled at the prospects of doing away with the authoritarian constitution, but were concerned it did not go far enough to offer guarantees of gender parity or reserve representation for Indigenous groups and independents. The Communist Party and a smattering of small parties refused to sign because they wanted deeper reforms.
For now, the immediate reforms and the acuerdo have calmed the pace and tenor of protests, and most accounts point to a peaceful plebiscite in April. This constitutional moment is a big one for Chile. Given the government’s recognition of the severity of the crisis, there is no reason to doubt its sincerity to make the plebiscite go smoothly and provide a framework for moving peaceably forward. If the plebiscite is successful, Chileans will achieve what was nowhere on the horizon only months ago: a definitive end to the Pinochet constitution, one of the dictatorship’s most objectionable legacies. This change will be followed by a reconfiguration of Chile’s fundamental social pact and reforms to its extreme form of neoliberalism, which has created staggering economic and social inequality at the root of these protests. However, for Chile to reestablish its status as model of economic development and social peace, it will have to walk a careful line between reform between competing interests and reestablish some sense of order and predictability after what undoubtedly has been Chile’s most significant social convulsion since the end of the dictatorship. The strength of Chile’s democratic institutions and its political class — which is fundamentally different than others in the region in terms of political skill, respect for the rule of law, and relative probity — enhances the possibilities that the country will be able to walk this line.
January 9, 2020
* Peter M. Siavelis is Chair and Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs, and Associate Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University. His most recent edited book on Chile, with Kirsten Sehnbruch, is Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition.
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