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  • Jorge Vargas

Chile's new constitutional process: a second attempt to overcome the neoliberal model

In October 2019, thousands of high school students took to the streets to demonstrate against the increase in the fare of the public transportation system, where they organized to carry out acts of mass evasion in the capital's Metro. However, this was just the kickoff for the unleashing of the anger and frustration of many people throughout the country against inequality and the abuses of successive governments. This brought with it extreme violence, looting, arson, and accusations by the UN and Amnesty International against the Chilean police for human rights violations. After almost a month of massive social mobilization and the request for radical changes by the population, the political actors in Congress took the necessary step to generate a broad political agreement to build a social pact toward a new Constitution.

The constitutional process that Chile is currently undergoing seeks to set the country on the path to put a tombstone to the neoliberal economic system imposed by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1980. The constitution that currently governs Chile establishes a cultural uniqueness and a normative rigidity that focuses on investment expectations and not on people's lives. The new proposal of a "social state of rights", on the other hand, contemplated a state and universal health and education system, the end of private pension fund administrators, the effective right to strike, decentralizes the State, maintaining the autonomy of the Central Bank, and puts an end to property rights over water given in perpetuity in the current Constitution. Moreover, for the first time, the recognition of the "plurinational state" was debated concerning the native peoples that constitute Chile, who have been the focus of inequality before the law and the rest of the population.

One of the significant meanings that characterized this process was the inclusion of gender parity among the aspirants to write it and the gender perspective, which is why it was considered one of the most equitable constitutional proposals that have existed at present. The second great significance of the constitutional change is given by the origin and gestation of this new Constitution, which, if approved, would have been the first democratic Constitution in the history of Chile, since all the previous ones were imposed in wars or dictatorships, as is the case of the 1980 Constitution.

This new proposed Constitution, however, which was voted on in September 2022, was rejected by Chileans by more than 61% of the votes. Even when the election was marked by misinformation, scandals and divided positions on the final text arrived at by the Constitutional Convention, this outcome had not been contemplated by pollsters and analysts. One of the determinants of the triumph of the rejection was that its campaign was characterized by ‘’fake news’’ and by contents that ridiculed a good part of the proposals contained in the text, where social networks played a key role in the decision of a good part of the society to reject the text. Another determining factor was that many criticized the composition of the Convention and spoke of a certain ideologization and divisions within the Convention that often ended in friction, accusations, and scandals. Although the left wing and independents were the winners of the constituent convention, the failure to incorporate the right wing in every one of the negotiations further subtracted support in the process. Also, the debate on the plurinational state was forged, which left many questions about the Chilean identity and patriotic symbols, which, according to certain sectors of the opposition, would be affected and even removed in the new text.

After this unsuccessful attempt, Chile has another chance to draft a new constitutional text, where consensus will be sought to avoid the failure of the previous one. The government and the parliamentary right-wing opposition reached an agreement to reactivate the drafting of a new Constitution after the defeat in the plebiscite. This path, which includes a greater role for the ''experts'', seeks to clear the way to leave behind the 1980 Constitution, but will also give space to the current president Gabriel Boric to be able to devote himself to his governmental agenda. The group of 24 members, 12 men, and 12 women, have to submit a brief to the 50-member constitutional council, which, composed of an equal number of women and men, will be elected by the citizens.

Although the constitutional agreement is seen as a second chance, inalienable bases have been established in this new proposal in order not to make the same mistakes that led to the failure of the first constitutional process:

  1. ‘’Chile is a democratic Republic and that the State is unitary and decentralized’’. In addition, for the first time, constitutional recognition will be given to indigenous peoples.

  1. ‘’National symbols are recognized and it is established that Chile has three separate and independent powers: the Executive Power, the Legislative Power, and the Judicial Power’’.

  1. ‘’Chile is a social and democratic State of rights’’, which was also part of the previous proposal. It is expected to be one of the main axes of political and ideological discussion within the expert commission between the right and the center-left, which managed to incorporate it into the agreement.

These bases are quite detailed and involve fundamental decisions on issues that were debated in the previous constituent process. In this sense, this set of decisions that are imposed on the new constitutional process can be interpreted as a search for balance between the opposition to certain aspects that generated resistance to the proposal of the new Constitution. This anticipates a shorter text than the previous draft and a certain neutrality towards divisive issues. The most interesting thing to observe, however, is to what extent this text will mean an advance concerning the 1980 Constitution, in terms of solving the crisis of representativeness affecting Chile, and whether it will be able to end the search for a new Constitution.

The road ahead for an eventual continuation of the constitutional process is not simple. The challenge presented to Chilean politics in this second opportunity is to reach a new agreement that will allow finally to bring forward a new constitutional text with broad and transversal popular support. This time, the challenge goes far beyond dispelling doubts about plurinational and affirmative signals that should be offered, alluding to the fact that the national community is intimately linked to personal identity definitions. For this, it would do well to remember how quickly the support and hope deposited in a process can fall if those expectations are betrayed again.

Jorge Vargas

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