The Longing for a Social State of Rights

Paradoxically, a few days short of Chile's Constitutional plebiscite to be held on Sunday September 4th - the outcome of the social uprising that shook the country in October 2019 and prompted a constitutional process with the support of 78% of the population -, there seems to be no certainty as to the possible results. So much support then and so much polarisation now.

The collective protests organized by a large majority of the Chilean people reflected the general disapproval of the political authorities, the state powers and the practices of those with leverage. The Chilean society raised its voice calling for an end to the social inequality inherited from Pinochet's civil-military dictatorship, which was enshrined in the 1980 constitution and had a decisive impact on the Chileans' future. Social stratification in Chile is so deep that a person's place of residence reveals much more than a simple address.

A focal point of the demonstrations has always been the defence of democracy, ongoing demands for the extension of rights, and the need for all citizens to live as full right-holders. Hence, the ratification of the new constitution through this plebiscite aims to break with a highly unequal social and political structure and, at the same time, with a constitution that represents a subsidiary state in order to move towards a social state of rights.

According to official figures, from October 18th, 2019, to mid-March 2020 an estimated 1.2 million people gathered in the centre of the Chilean capital to demand equality on all fronts. This was the festive face of deep social unrest brought about by the frustration of great part of the Chilean population, who felt left out of the development path of the last 30 years.

The demonstrators were young people, students, parents, pensioners, workers, teachers, academics, artists and writers, among others. At a regional level, the struggle of representatives of indigenous peoples and sexual diversity was made visible. Historically marginalised groups converged in Baquedano Square, the centre of the protests, setting an unprecedented milestone since the return of democracy.

Finally, in the midst of the pandemic and the human losses and social and economic consequences it entailed, the demands of the outbreak were contained by Piñera's government alongside all the opposition parties: they were united not by love but by the fear that the deepening social unrest could lead to the collapse of the party system.  And so, while the 2019 action was bottom-up, the constitutional reform under the principles of democracy, freedom and equality is proclaimed in the opposite direction.

The Chilean citizens surprised the ruling class, became empowered and challenged the political system in the election of the 155 Convention representatives with an independent majority who did not identify with the traditional parties. For the first time, the draft of a new constitution was not submitted to a referendum at the end of an authoritarian period but resulted from the deterioration of the legitimacy of democratic institutions, albeit being the most independent and inclusive process in Chilean history. So disruptive was the whole process that the committee in charge of drafting the new constitution to be voted on next Sunday included gender parity and the representation of indigenous peoples.

The proposal for the new constitution breaks the mould, which generates widespread rejection in conservative sectors at the very prospects of a shift from a democratic republic to an egalitarian one that guarantees equal opportunities, and from a constitution that ignores indigenous peoples to one that advocates a Plurinational and Intercultural State. It also entails changes in the political institutions with the dissolution of the Senate, a stronghold of the traditional conservative parties for 200 years, thus opening the debate on whether Chile is to continue to be a unitary state or become a regional one.

With uncertainty about the turnout, considering that this is a mandatory referendum in a country where voting is voluntary, polls can hardly give any certainty about the result. However, it is possible to imagine the likely scenarios on September 5th after the approval or rejection of the new constitution drawn up in a participatory, parity-based and democratic process, with a distinctly feminist imprint on its 388 articles and 57 transitory provisions. As the writer Isabel Allende said, "the new constitution attacks the foundations of patriarchy".

Should it be approved, the new constitution will come into force. The day after, the way in which the enshrined rights can become public policies will surely begin to be assessed. This will not be an easy challenge given the interests at stake and the objections to some points raised by those who will vote affirmatively. Paraphrasing Pablo Milanés and confirming her endorsement of the approval, Michelle Bachelet said: "It is not perfect, but it is closer to what I have always dreamed of".

Should it be rejected, Pinochet’s constitution will remain in place, but even in this bleak scenario there may seem to be some light. There is political consensus that the current constitution needs to be changed, as the vast majority of Chileans voted to replace the current Magna Carta in the referendum of October 2020. Access to education, health and pension reform ought to be banners that Gabriel Boric's government should continue to hoist in response to its electoral commitment and the need to ensure that citizens' expectations for a dignified life are not frustrated.

The political leadership of all ideological arcs will have to acknowledge that democracy is parity, or it is not democracy; and the political parties will have to commit themselves not only to the law but also to the organisation of their party structures.

To sum up, Chile has achieved a process of citizen articulation in pursuit of the expansion of rights that cannot be reversed, and those who understand this election in terms of winners and losers, of change or status quo, will be misreading the will of the people.


Dolores Gandulfo is Director of the Electoral Observatory of the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean (COPPPAL), member of the Observatory of Political Reforms of Latin America. and of the Network of Women Political Scientists and the Association of International Relations Studies of Argentina (AERIA).

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