The social demonstrations of 2019, the plebiscite of 2020 and the election of a Constituent Assembly in 2021 have been milestones of a transformation process that is spreading throughout Latin America. From Argentina to Mexico, countries are facing the biggest crises since the dictatorships and democratic transitions in the '80s.
Inequality and discrimination, state apparatuses that are unable to meet the needs of the majority, closed elites confronted with middle and popular classes, legitimate aspirations neglected by institutions, technological backwardness and digital globalization, they are all realities that the pandemic has deepened.
At the same time, however, new possibilities for change are emerging: social pacts, democratic participation, stronger states and the public's awareness have been awakened on the fact that another way of living is possible. Therefore, the constituent experience will be decisive for the future of Chile and should be closely observed by the political and social forces of other Latin American countries seeking for new solutions.
Which paths are opening up in Chile?
Before the pandemic, the so-called social outburst of 2019 shook the political system, the parties and especially a right-wing government that worsened the existing problems. Fortunately, in Congress the parties reacted promptly and intelligently by agreeing on a Constitutional Reform so that, through a plebiscite, the citizens would decide to replace the current Constitution through a Constituent Assembly.
Then came the plebiscite and the quadruple election of constituents, mayors, councilors and governors, in May 2021. The results were surprising. The first surprise in the plebiscite was the magnitude of the positive vote on the draft of a new Constitution. It reached 80%, despite the economic and political opposition of the right-wing sectors that bet on its rejection. The second surprise this year was the reiteration of that 80% in the election of constituents, preventing the conservative sectors from reaching 1/3 of the members, with which they lost their ability to veto (the constituent must adopt agreements by 2/3 of the votes). This has generated fears, caused the stock market to fall, and some predicted disaster.
The third surprise was the large number of independents elected. For a country with a long party tradition, the result was disconcerting. Why did non-party candidates and so many young people triumph? There were technological reasons: young people made intensive use of social networks, using their amplified knowledge in pandemic times. And there was also a strong preference for independents and a repudiation of party candidates among a good part of the voters. To this also helped the approval in Congress of a law that authorized for the first time the grouping of independents on a list, which allowed them to concentrate their votes.
Another surprise was the spectacular advance of women, who did not need the parity rule to reach 50% of the positions, but on the contrary, obtained more triumphs than men and had to give them chairs.
But not everything changed that much. On the other three elections held on the same day in May 2021, the dominant political forces during the democratic construction managed to preserve their high gravitation. The center-left again achieved a majority in mayors, councilors and regional governors; the right remained a second force, albeit diminished, and the rest of the left-wing opposition, the Broad Front and the Communist Party, advanced markedly. The sum of the government's opponents doubled the ruling party. Indeed, the traditional parties were the main actors.
In addition to the unexpected results, a very important fact highlights: the acceleration of a generational change that can renew parties and leaders and change the current political structure, involving more women and young people.
Main questions after the election of constituents.
It is still early to know what does each constituent represent, how they will group amongst the others, and who will agree on positions to reach the 2/3 necessary to incorporate the issues into the Constitution. The essential and positive thing for the future of Chile is that its citizens chose a democratic path, an institutional path. As constitutional deliberation progresses in the coming months, attention will turn to the November 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections. The right has shrunk, while the electorate has shifted towards the opposition. Two main options have emerged in the opposition: a centre-left -which is, unfortunately, dispersed and weakened-, and a strengthened radical left. These two lefts will test their strength in the next presidential election.
So, who will be able to provide governability to push through major reforms, with a parliamentary majority, and lead a constitutional transition? It is not enough to win the presidential election, it is essential to have the political and technical capacity to govern. A weak government could obstruct both the reforms and the work of the constituent assembly. The right is now weak and the radical left gives no guarantees of governability. I believe that only the centre-left could better manage this period of change and affirm democracy but, unfortunately, it remains fragmented as in today.
This uncertainty comes with another pressing fact: the low voter turnout. The voluntary vote approved during Piñera's first government, in 2011, has fueled indifference. The 2020 plebiscite should have attracted a high majority, but it barely exceeded the 50%. In the last quadruple election of 2021, that turnout dropped to 46%. Today, less than half of its citizens support the Chilean democracy. Which is a bad sign for future times. Fortunately, there seems to be a sufficient majority in Congress to reinstate the compulsory vote. Voting is not just a right, but a duty, in democracy.
The fundamental axes of the constitutional debate.
The great constitutional debate must shape the society in which we wish to live in the coming decades. The global and national challenges are enormous: inequality, climate change, technological acceleration and digital democracy.
The major issues that will lead the discussion will be the following: the presidential or semi-presidential political system; the protection of basic economic and social rights and how to achieve them; a strengthened capacity of the state to convene all actors and conduct a transformation strategy; participation and social dialogue to strengthen democratic governance; and constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples.
Betting on consensus and hope.
These debates will force us to collectively think about the world to come and to agree on a new national pact, a new social pact and a new fiscal pact.
This process’ possibility of success will depend on the maturity of Chileans and on the quality of political leadership. We must change the ongoing course, yet recognizing what has been accomplished as well as anticipating national and global changes. The constitution is for everyone, it is not the imposition of one group over the others, as happened during the dictatorship. The challenge is to avoid polarization and to seek the consensus, to walk the path with unity and hope. The years 2021 and 2022 will be decisive ones.
Sergio Bitar is a politician and civil engineer. President of the Chilean Council of Foresight and Strategy. He was Minister of Mining under President Allende, Senator, Minister of Education under President Lagos, and Minister of Public Works under President Bachelet.