The political impasse in Chile: a sign of democracy's strength or weakness?

/ Online streaming - via Zoom

The significant protests that erupted in Chile towards the end of 2019, dubbed the estallido social, unveiled a politically engaged populace, albeit their concerns remain largely unaddressed by the traditional Chilean political elite. The primary political parties are endeavoring to reestablish a rapport with the society, yet stable connections have proven elusive. This dynamic accounts for the nation's apparent oscillation between left and right political inclinations, a fluctuation that appears endless.

These insights were among the key takeaways from a webinar hosted by the Fundação Fernando Henrique Cardoso on December 12, shortly before a pivotal plebiscite scheduled for December 17. In this referendum, the Chilean populace rejected, for the second time in just over a year, the draft of a new Charter, designed to replace the 1980 Constitution, enacted during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990). 

The webinar featured insights from Kathya Araujo, a full professor at the Instituto de Estudios Avanzados de la Universidad de Santiago de Chile, and Verónica Undurraga, the former chair of the Commission of Experts. In 2023, this commission played a pivotal role in crafting a new constitutional proposal, set to be presented to the public on December 17.

"Chileans initially embraced the idea of drafting a new constitution following the social deadlock, viewing it as a democratic and institutional method to address the grievances that have emerged in recent years. Yet, the disillusionment stemming from the unsuccessful first attempt to create a new constitution (2021–22) has led to an increasing disinterest among the populace regarding the subsequent constitutional effort (conducted in 2023)," explained Kathya Araujo, director of the Núcleo Interuniversitario Multidisciplinar Individuos, Lazo Social y Asimetrías de Poder (NIUMAP). 

"As time has passed, the traditional political factions, spanning both the center-left and center-right (which alternately ruled the nation from the 1990s up until the recent past), have gradually become estranged from the general public. This detachment has created vacuums now filled by more extreme elements on both the left and right spectrums. This was particularly evident throughout the constitutional process," Ms. Araujo continued.

"The ongoing crisis doesn't endanger Chilean democracy itself, but rather the politicians who have failed to demonstrate effective leadership," said Kathya Araujo.

In September 2022, 60% of Chilean voters turned down the initial proposal crafted by a Constituent Assembly elected in May 2021, notable for its gender parity and representation quotas for Indigenous populations. This first effort was dominated by more left-leaning political factions, particularly social movements, whose representatives were elected as independents, unaffiliated with any political party. 

The draft that emerged reflected the priorities of these groups rather than a broad consensus. It proposed significant alterations to foundational aspects of the Chilean state, such as its bicameral system (with a suggestion to abolish the Senate) and its unitary nature (introducing the concept of a plurinational state akin to Bolivia).   

Following the rejection of this proposal, a new approach was adopted. Whereas the initial process had facilitated direct involvement from social movements and Indigenous communities, the subsequent process took a more closed approach. A panel comprising academics and seasoned politicians was tasked with preparing a preliminary draft of the constitution. 

Subsequently, this preliminary draft was presented to a Constitutional Convention, constituted by representatives chosen by the populace in May 2023 from a roster of candidates put forward by the political parties. The election for the Convention saw the ultra-right Republican Party emerge victorious, led by José Antonio Kast, who is a prominent contender to follow the incumbent left-wing president, Gabriel Boric, who secured his election in December 2021.

The left dominated the first convention; the right tried to impose
its vision on the second 

Verónica Undurraga, a professor at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez and former chair of the commission, noted that the preliminary draft for the new Constitution garnered a substantial consensus among commission members. Yet, upon reaching the Constitutional Convention, the right-wing majority opted to impose its vision, utilizing the Convention as a platform to advocate for its agenda in the upcoming 2025 presidential elections. This strategy may have backfired, should the plebiscite polls be accurate. Similar to the rejection of the initial Constitution draft, which was left-leaning, the majority of Chileans appear poised to dismiss the second draft, which leans to the right. In December 17, 55% of the Chileans voted against the second proposal.

The speakers highlighted a significant shift in Chilean society, which is no longer aligned with the center-left and center-right coalitions that alternately governed from 1990 until 2020, the year the protracted and ongoing constitutional process commenced. Societal dynamics have evolved, and the electorate has undergone even more significant changes, particularly with the recent implementation of compulsory voting.

"It's time for the parties to put aside their immediate political interests and start thinking long-term. The inability of these parties to provide leadership has engendered considerable frustration within the society. People still favor an institutional resolution to the crisis, yet they are calling for tangible solutions to their issues," Ms. Undurraga remarked.

Chilean democracy is not at risk, speakers say 

"The ongoing crisis doesn't endanger Chilean democracy itself, but rather the politicians who have failed to demonstrate effective leadership. This entire ordeal we're undergoing starkly exposes a stagnation in the dialogue between political-party forces, a situation that started over a decade ago and has only grown more acute in the past four years with the emergence of new political players," agreed Ms. Araujo.

The landscape of this polarized conflict has been dominated by José Antonio Kast, representing an ultra-right-wing stance, and Gabriel Boric, at the helm of a more left-leaning administration. These two were the leading contenders in the runoff of the 2021 presidential election, which was ultimately clinched by Boric. 

While the speakers refrained from speculating on the aftermath in Chile should the newly proposed constitution be rejected on December 17, Undurraga noted that the right finds itself in a relatively advantageous position: "Even though the ultra-right has endeavored to forge a new constitution leaning towards more economic liberalism and conservatism in societal norms, it would face little difficulty in adhering to the current Charter, a legacy of Pinochet. The disappointment would be more profoundly felt within the left-wing segments of both the society and the political arena," she stated.

President Gabriel Boric, with two more years remaining in his term, needs to deliver tangible results, particularly in the realm of social welfare. For him, seeing the constitutional process through to its completion is crucial, even if the potential new Constitution, should it be ratified, falls short of the transformative goals once envisaged by the Chilean left. "I am hopeful that this process will be brought to a definitive close on the 17th. Chile is a nation endowed with abundant resources and potential. It's essential for us to turn the page and progress," concluded Ms. Undurraga.

"In the last few years, our experience has resembled a tumultuous roller-coaster ride, yet Chile is accustomed to a life governed by clear rules. The restoration of political and institutional stability is a vital step towards reigniting socio-economic development on a platform that is both equitable and sustainable," concluded Ms. Araujo.

Watch the lecture in full (In Portuguese).

Otávio Dias is the content editor at the FHC Foundation. He is a political and international affairs journalist, a former correspondent for Folha de São Paulo in London, and former editor of the website.

Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin, CT and Todd Harkin – Harkin Translations.

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