Owning the Constitution: Chile’s Unexpected Civil Revolution

On 4 July 2021, Chile’s “unexpected” Constitutional Convention commenced following a grassroots civil revolution against the current regime since 2019. Co-Head of Section for Cross-Regional Dialogue Stefano Palestini Céspedes (Catholic University of Chile) interviews Julieta Suárez-Cao (Catholic University of Chile) and Patricia Politzer (Journalist and Member of the Chilean Constitutional Assembly) to discuss their roles in this process.

At a global juncture in which the erosion of democracy is the trend, the constitutional process in Chile stands out as a rare opportunity for radical political change and democratization. A constituent convention equally composed of women and men, including representatives from indigenous people, will start the process of writing a new constitution that will replace the 1980 constitution written under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The stakes are high: the new constitutional text will be written by Chileans, directly elected by their fellow citizens, and the process is born out of a civil revolt sparked in 2019 in which citizens radically questioned the existing political and institutional order. Furthermore, the majority of the elected members of the constituent convention advocate a radical departure from the neoliberal model designed by the “Chicago boys” and enshrined in the “Pinochet Constitution”.

Let me summarize the main milestones of this process, which is full of hope but also uncertainty. On 18 October 2019, a series of riots and attacks to Metro stations in Santiago took Chilean authorities by surprise. What, at the beginning, seemed to be a social uprising against the rise in price of subway tickets rapidly evolved into a massive civil revolt that paralyzed the main cities in the country. Riots, demonstrations and fights with the police continued for the next months, with a peak on October 25 when more than a million Chileans took to the streets of Santiago demanding a complete overhaul of the political system and the socio-economic model. The government showed a complete inability to deal with a major crisis, and episodes of violence and serious violations of human rights perpetrated by the police started to be denounced by national and international human right organizations.

On 15 November 2019, a first reaction from the institutions of representative democracy took place. The political parties – amongst the most distrusted institutions with levels of popular approval ranging between 2-5 percent – issued the “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution”. The agreement opened up an institutional way to tackle the crisis. On 23 December 2019, the deeply distrusted President Sebastián Piñera proposed the “Law for the Constitutional Reform”, enabling a referendum in which citizens would express their preferences for a new constitution (“Agree” or “Reject”) and opt between a “Mixed Convention”, integrating members of the parliament and directly elected representatives, or a “Constitutional Convention” fully composed of directly elected representatives.

The referendum took place on 25 October 2020. With the highest turnout in the last decade, despite the pandemic and lockdowns, Chileans overwhelmingly voted for a New Constitution written by a convention fully composed of directly elected representatives. The rules approved by the political parties in the Agreement of November 25 continued providing a “road map” for the configuration of the convention, but it was complemented and (from a democratic point of view) improved through amendments such as the inclusion of a rule for gender parity, the authorization of electoral lists made up exclusively of candidates independent from established political parties (independientes), and the inclusion of 17 reserve benches for representatives of indigenous people. All these amendments were passed by the congress. One of the crucial rules that originated from the Agreement of November 25, and which was not amended, was the two-thirds quorum for approving the new constitutional text. This qualified majority rule – the same that Pinochet’s constitution established for introducing constitutional reforms – was perceived by many as a concession to conservatives that wanted to maintain the status quo: if these people – represented by the right-wing parties – reached a third of the elected members of the convention they could de facto veto each and every norm of the new constitution, derailing the process. However, on the 15-16 May 2021, Chileans elected the 155 members for the Constitutional Convention and the right only managed 37 elected members, a number below the one-third necessary for a veto.

On July 4, the Constitutional Convention was inaugurated. The members of the convention elected their president, Elisa Loncon. She is a Mapuche activist, with a Ph.D. from Leiden University, and Professor of the Universidad de Santiago. 

In what follows, I translate a conversation that I had independently with Julieta Suárez-Cao and Patricia Politzer about the constitutional process that is just starting. The former is professor of political science at the Catholic University, and played a crucial role together with other colleagues from the “Red de Politólogas” (Network of Female Political Scientists) in introducing the gender-parity mechanism in the election of members of the convention. Patricia Politzer is a journalist and one of the independientes who was elected for the convention in a highly disputed electoral district which includes rich, middle-class, and poor areas in Santiago.

Stefano Palestini Céspedes: Julieta, in your view as a political scientist who has closely followed the process since the beginning, what are the most significant outcomes of the elections of members of the convention?

Julieta Suárez-Cao: The last elections were pretty surprising on many levels. I would single out two outcomes that are not only significant but also fill me with joy: the success of the gender parity mechanism, and the failure of campaign money to determine the fate of the candidates.

The mechanism to ensure gender balanced results at the Constitutional Convention ended up benefitting more men than women (three women and seven men got their seats due to parity correction). I believe this is the ultimate indicator that it worked as intended: to make sure that electable and competitive female candidates get to be included in party (and independent) lists.

This helps to undermine two perverse and pervasive myths: that the electorate chooses not to vote for women, and that women have little political ambition or that they are not interested in getting involved in politics.

Julieta Suárez-Cao

The other significant outcome is related to the fact that money did not play an important role at all in the election. Giant gaps of funding were reported between the candidates of the government (almost 6 million dollars) and the rest of the political parties (2 million dollars), and particularly between traditional parties and independent candidates (less than 400,000 dollars). However, elected independents surpassed the number of delegates elected from the government’s list, even though independents’ campaigns received a little over 5% of the funds amassed by the government’s candidates. This is definitely good news for democracy.

Let me start by asking you, Patricia, about your motivation to run to be a member of the Convention. This is the first time you have participated in a political campaign.

Patricia Politzer:It was a spontaneous impulse when the constitutional process was launched. I wanted to contribute from a place different than journalism, which is the profession through which I have contributed to the country all my life. This time I wanted to participate as a protagonist and not as an analyst of the process.

Patricia Politzer

I thought that as a political journalist I could make a twofold contribution: on the one hand, I have been witness to how power works, and on the other, I have never stopped being a reporter – which I consider the essence of journalism – and therefore I have always been in contact with the different realities of the country. Amidst this crisis, in which there is a huge gap between the elites and the citizens, it occurred to me that I could bridge positions. I could help to re-build the bridges between politics and the citizens, promoting the dialogue and the agreements that the country requires.

Although the parties who want the status quo were defeated, reaching agreements won’t be easy in all fronts. On which issues do you expect it will be harder for the members of the convention to agree?

Patricia Politzer: I think there are some crucial issues that are very complex. One of them is the distribution of power which is at the heart of every constitution. Another is the place of private property. Even though I have heard none of the elected members casting doubt on the importance of private property, there are different views about whether private property should or not be limited under certain circumstances, for instance when the community or the environment are being affected. But I am optimistic, and I think we are obliged to break the gridlocks that we will find in the way. Dialogue will be crucial, as well as citizen participation, which must be influential especially when we address complex issues.

You mentioned the issue of the distribution of power. In my view, there is a very strong mandate from the civil revolt of October 2019 on expanding social rights in the new constitution. But the mandate regarding the distribution of power (for instance, the type of political regime) is less clear. How are the members of the convention going to ground their positions on this issue that, as you say, is at the heart of any Constitution?

Patricia Politzer: I think there is some room for consensus.

For example, there is a general consensus against the excessive concentration of power for the President of the Republic. Some lean towards adopting a parliamentary system, whereas others will push for a semi-presidential system.

I like the idea of a unicameral parliament, but I am aware that a unicameral parliament brings some difficulties in terms of representation. I think it is crucial that we (the members of the convention) do not  arrive with our own written constitution under our arm. I think it is crucial to have ears, eyes, and heart open. For sure, I will strive to convince as many members as possible with my arguments and ideas, but I am at the same time entirely open to let myself be convinced. I think this is very important.

Julieta, many of our readers might look at the Chilean process from the viewpoint of the recent experiences of constitutional processes in other Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. In those countries the new texts were written within the context of a systematic democratic decay. Some observers would argue that these new constitutions have even contributed to the autocratization of some of these countries. Is the Chilean experience different?

Julieta Suárez-Cao: The Chilean experience so far is very different in key elements, for example the absence of a majoritarian bloc supported by the Chilean government that is able to approve articles on its own, without the need of the support from other forces. Even in Bolivia, where Evo Morales’ force was not able to gather two-thirds of the seats, it controlled more than twice the number of delegates than its main rival. New Latin American constitutions enacted a decalogue of social and groups’ rights but they did not alter the concentration of power in the Executive’s hands, and where possible they even enhanced presidential prerogatives. These constitutions were able to do so because assemblies were elected in the context of a systematic democratic decay, yet right after the ascension to power of Chavez, Morales and Correa. In this sense, the new constitutions were, more in some cases than in others, tailor-made to these strongmen. In Chile the situation is quite the opposite – not only does no political force control over 30 percent of seats, there is no emergent leadership able to sway delegates’ will. That is why I would expect the new Constitution to be defined more by power-sharing characteristics, rather than power-concentrating traits.

66 percent of the Constituent Assembly are people with no affiliation to a political party. Those independientes competed against and defeated professional politicians with experience and money for campaigning. What does this say about political representation and the role of political parties? What do you expect will be the role of parties under the new Constitution?

Patricia Politzer: Chile is in the middle of a huge crisis of political representation that ended up producing marked governability problems. We have known this for a long time, but institutional inertia prevented elites from carrying out pre-emptive reforms that may have had an impact on the citizens’ trust of political institutions in general and political parties in particular. These independent candidates that defeated professional politicians will probably push for more citizens’ participation, and we will see a combination of features of representative and participatory democracy.

However, political parties are the quintessential institution of democracy and they need to be strengthened. This does not mean that we need to strengthen the current political parties, in particular traditional parties which are mostly captured by economic groups and ran by a tight-knit closed elite. New parties should emerge from this Constitutional Convention.

Parties that represent and organize citizens, as well as presenting distinguishable options to the electorate.

There are analysts that have argued that the Chilean process has three goals that cannot be achieved together at the same time. First, to write a transformative Constitution that will completely overhaul the neoliberal model inherited from Pinochet. Secondly, to do so in the framework of a broad participation in which citizens will be constantly monitoring and giving input to the convention throughout the entire process. And thirdly, to write it in 9 months (with a legal extension possibility of 3 additional months). Don’t we have to give up on one of these goals?

Patricia Politzer: It is evident that we have to give up the deadline. Because it seems to me that we cannot give up on the citizens’ participation, because this constitutional process comes from the citizens, the people on the street, it comes from a popular rebellion. Therefore, citizens’ participation is crucial for the legitimacy of the constitution. The demand for a total change of course for the country is also related to the citizens’ demands and therefore we cannot give up there either. So, of your three points, we can only modify the deadline. I think that if it becomes evident that the timing is too tight, we have to extend it, but I must say that I would like to stick to the deadline, and if there is an extension, I would like it to be as brief as possible because I think the changes that the country need are urgent. We all know that after the approval of the new constitution, we will have a period of adaptation of the laws and public policies to the new constitution. So I hope we manage to finish the text as soon as possible.

Julieta, do you think these demands of citizens for a transformative constitution can be satisfied? Is there a risk of a complete frustration of expectations?

Julieta Suárez-CaoI think it would be patronising to assume that people are naive enough to believe that most demands will be satisfied once the new constitution is enacted, and that it will contain all the solutions to their predicaments. In a way, the constitutional process that started in November 2019, with all its stops and milestones is part of the solution. Beyond the actual text of the new Constitution, legitimacy will be re-built in this very same process. We have approved the idea of a new Constitution and elected a very different crowd from that that has controlled politics for at least the last 30 years. The process so far has exceeded expectations. I tend to believe that the fixed time limit for the Convention and the referendum on the new constitutional text should act as incentives for the delegates to negotiate and agree on the new articles.

I am confident that the fear of a complete frustration of expectations is exaggerated, in particular as it is stirred up by groups which are against the constitutional change.

Patricia, you are about to start your work in the convention. Even though the conservative parties that wanted to preserve the status quo got less than the one-third of members necessary to veto norms and derail the process, it seems to me there is a widespread lack of trust among elected members. The communists and other left-wing members have proposed, for instance, to plebiscite the decision-making rules (the two-thirds majority) in the next presidential elections in November, fearing that conservatives could still in some way “steal the process”. How do you see the issue of trust in the convention?

Patricia Politzer:  The Chilean people voted very wisely, in my view. This is the first time that we have a democratically elected body of representatives which reflects quite well the Chilean society of the 21st century, and this is evident when you compare the convention with the parliament, which is elected under the same rules. So, there is no one-third that can block the conversations. I think the majorities in the constitutional debate will be flexible; I don’t see permanent blocks in the different issues. I think some majorities will be formed in a certain way for some issues, and in a different way for others. If on the way we come to realize that the two-thirds are an impediment to work and advance, there are mechanisms available to change it and adopt a different quorum. I am not afraid of this.

I do believe though that a constitution must be approved by a substantive majority, if we want to have a text that will last for decades: when you write a constitution your aim is to produce rules of the game that will be recognized and assumed by the largest majority of citizens for the longest possible period of time. I don’t fear the two-thirds.

The distrust is a generalized sentiment in contemporary Chilean society. In the same way that the left might have distrust on the issue of the two-thirds, the right is full of other fears and distrust. The distrust is the result of the deep social and political crisis that we are facing. Therefore, one of the first things that we have to do is to generate levels of trust within the convention that allow an adequate dialogue among us. Most of the members don’t know each other. We are starting to know each other, building a relation of confidence, overcoming prejudices, and I believe this will prove to be crucial for writing the new constitution.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner

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