On the Chilean Constitutional Referendum

The result of Chile's referendum represents an overwhelming victory of the popular classes, but ultimately the direction of the country will be decided outside parliamentary and constitutional processes.

11 min read

The Vote

On October 25th Chileans were asked to vote on a new constitution. Their answer was unequivocal. Yes – Apruebo.

Nearly 80% of the country backed the decision, including all sixteen regions. La Araucania, in southern Chile, saw the closest result. The home of many thousands of self-proclaimed ‘colonists,’ sent from Europe and northern Chile in the late 19th century to ‘settle’ previously Indigenous land, the region has a fiercely conservative reputation. It was one of only two regions that backed continuing the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1988 plebiscite. Nonetheless, even here the margin was two-to-one, 66% in favour of the new constitution, just 33% against.

There is rarely an event of such single-sided magnitude in any electoral system both in terms of the national share of the vote and in its geographical uniformity. And the statistical landslide continues. The most local governmental unit in Chile is the comuna – roughly equivalent to a local council area. There are 346 comunas in Chile. Just five voted against the new constitution – one of which was Antarctica, home to just 127 people.

The image is clear – one of overwhelming majority driven by a sense of unifying popular aspiration (and anger). Only one last word need be said on the constitutional vote itself. Four other districts voted rechazo (reject). One was Colchane, a military-dominated border region with Bolivia where turnout sunk to record low number. The other three – Vitacura, Las Condes, and Lo Barnechea – correspond to the epicentre of Chilean wealth, hyper-exclusive suburbs of concentrated capital in the northeast of Santiago. All three have average incomes of above $70,000 in a country where GDP per capita stands at $12,000. Cultural difference notwithstanding, class offers us the easiest and most effective lens through which to view what small division there was in the electorate. The country’s vast, proud working-class was united for change. The rich clung desperately to the hope of obstructing it.

Of course, no victory, however decisive, is without some storm clouds on the horizon. Despite real energy, as evidenced by the celebratory crowds which swarmed plazas across the country upon victory, turnout remained stubbornly low at 50.2%. Although this marked the highest total in any Chilean election since the voting was made voluntary in the early 2010s, it remains clear that a large portion of Chileans actively reject the formal political process. Many do so for sensible and political reasons – reasons explained later.

Pincohet’s Rag

In a sense, the referendum of October 25th was more important as a declaration of sentiment than as a coherent moment of political change. To understand why we must look back at the constitution being discarded.

Introduced in a widely discredited referendum in 1980, the current Chilean constitution has its roots in the 1973 coup against democratic socialist Salvador Allende. The newly installed Pinochet regime immediately suspended the semi-progressive 1925 constitution, notable for its allusions to several social rights as well as the usual liberal ones, and set up a commission to produce a new one.

At the de-facto head of this commission was the young Jaime Guzmán, born 1946, the co-founder of gremialismo. It is worth pausing briefly on this sub-ideology for it philosophically underpins the entire 1980 constitution.

Born out of right-wing student movements at the Catholic University, gremialismo emerged in a moment of political ‘crisis’ for academic conservatives as, throughout the 1960s, leftists gained the upper hand on campus after campus. As such, the philosophy was intended by Guzmán as a sophisticated appeal far beyond that of atheoretical conservative traditionalism, an appeal which could match the meta-discourses of radicals. It postulated a socially pre-ordained group role for every cluster of humans. Here it might be closely compared to Michael Oakeshott’s theories of practical modes of knowledge. ‘Who knows how to farm better than a farmer?’ it might ask. The answer, apparently, is clear. As such, farmers ought be left to run the world of farming. Guzmán, even more than Oakeshott, however, took this logic to deeply anti-democratic ends. Any administrative needs of society as a whole ought be left to that group who knew best how to rule – the traditional rulers. Beyond this, politics was a trap which could only pervert life and group, scrambling, confusing, and destroying the natural human society. Gremialismo was equal parts authoritarian and anti-political.

When it came to the time of writing the constitution, these gremialista philosophies found easy friends in the economic concerns of the neoliberals – after all, who knows better how to run a business than a businessman – and those of the military dictatorship. The result was a constitution at once deeply authoritarian and stubbornly neoliberal, a constitution which built only semi-implicitly upon the presumption that society possesses a natural hierarchy and that that hierarchy is right, in other words, a thoroughly and existentially reactionary document.

It should be noted that the constitution thrown out on October 25th by the Chilean people bears quite a number of superficial differences from its 1980 predecessor. It was amended extensively in 1989 to facilitate the ‘transition to democracy’ and again many times thereafter – well over 100 amendments in total. Nonetheless those core ideological functions remained. The constitution of 1980 was built on three pillars – centralised state authority, social hierarchy, and economic neoliberalism.

The constitution of 1980 was built on three pillars – centralised state authority, social hierarchy, and economic neoliberalism.

Piñera’s Last Hope

We’ve talked of the results of their historical-constitutional context, but what of their political-social context? Why did Sebastián Piñera, president of Chile and conservative stalwart, call this referendum at all?

By now, many are aware of the social conflict that has engulfed Chile for the last year (for those who are not I would slyly recommend my previous articles for New Socialist). It was very much out of this conflict that the promise of a referendum emerged. However, the referendum was not an answer to the direct demands of the demonstrators themselves who largely levelled a series of immediate economic and broader social-revolutionary demands (the latter often cloaked in an inexact rhetoric but real nonetheless).The only group really talking about a new constitution was Social Unity, a communist influenced coalition of union and social movement leaders formed just before the revolt and never its head. Piñera, as such, was the one who really introduced constitutional debate into the political arena on a mass scale. His reason for doing so was three pronged.

First, and most directly important at the time, it was an attempt to save his own skin by generating a future political calendar that energies could be diverted into. There was never a real hope that offering the referendum would take enough wind out of the sails of the movement to destroy it altogether. The intention was merely to peel off enough activists and party militants to allow the state to maintain control. After all, even the BBC was tacitly pushing for a Piñera resignation by this point. In this, the ploy was indisputably effective. Whilst protests continued onwards, huge amounts of energy, especially in local, popular assemblies, was diverted to fighting the referendum campaign, a fight that ironically only grew in intensity as it became clear that apruebo would triumph decisively.

The second rationale was an attempt to recenter the political process around the parliamentary parties. The Chilean revolt was notable for its antipathy towards all of the established parties including the Left Front and the Communists. The hope was that institutional channels would allow the parties, and with them the ‘democratic’ institutions, to dominate the debate. On this, the move was much less successful. Coronavirus hamstrung the street movement. However, the debate around the referendum was largely fought on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood level, apruebo being far more associated with the protests and their symbology – notably the indigenous Mapuche flag and the insurrectionary dog Matapacos – rather than any of the official pro-new-constitution formations.

Finally, there was an active hope that the specific, material, and class discourse of the Revolt could be supplanted by meta-political discussions around the nature of democracy. The intrinsically nebulous nature of such debates, along with their superficial complexity, seemed a far more beneficial terrain for the political class than those materially connected to the lives of the citizenry. Here, the government was broadly successful. However, the long term implications of such a success are not necessarily beneficial for the stability of the state project – a nebulous demand is hard to define but equally difficult to fulfill.

While the referendum should be read as a victory of the popular classes against a state-controlling elite, it must also be seen as a semi-successful attempt by that elite to cling on to power by redirecting the political moment.

Ultimately, as such, while the referendum could and should be read as a grand victory of the popular classes against a state-controlling elite, it must also be seen as a semi-successful attempt by that self-same elite to cling on to their wealth, power, and influence by redirecting the political moment.

The Coming Elections and the “Constituent” Process

Perhaps the most clear reasons for this remain to be seen. Plebiscites, with their binary choices and broad based options, allow for a certain funneling of popular anger. The writing of the constitution, and the electoral processes defining it, much less so. Alongside the vote on whether to approve a new constitution was one on the form of the body that would be tasked with doing so. Again, there were two options. The first, a mixed convention, would create a temporary legislature composed of 50% present parliamentarians and 50% of new delegates. The second, dubbed a constitutional convention, would exclusively include a new set of representatives.

The vote for the constitutional convention won by approximately the same margin as that for apruebo. This means that, come April, a vote will be held to elect those responsible for drawing up the new document. A key demand of the movement was that any such body must be gender equal – 50% male, 50% female (the treatment of any non-binary potential representatives is unclarified). The political establishment cynically utilised this demand to insert, as the electoral method for the convention, a party-list proportional system. What this means, in practice, is that the political parties will have sole control over the personnel who actually write the new constitution. Voters will merely be asked to identify which party-defined list of candidates they prefer. Proportional systems, it should be noted, are also specifically designed to deny majorities to any one group.

The end-result of all this will be a highly divided convention made up of individuals hand-picked by their respective parties to represent the interests of their respective leaderships. These representatives will be elected in April and then spend approximately the next year producing a new constitutional text. After this point, the text will return to the public for a final referendum on whether to adopt it or not. It remains unclear exactly what process will occur should the public reject the proposed constitution. However, it seems extremely unlikely that such a body will produce anything resembling a radical document and, if it somehow does, it is abundantly clear that such documents are worth little more than the paper they are printed on. One need only look to post-apartheid South Africa or post-independence India, both home to definitively leftist constitutions, for irrefutable examples of this.

At the same time as all of this is occurring, 2021 will also see parliamentary, local, and presidential elections. The latter particularly seems highly likely to inflame tensions, albeit in an uncertain direction. Chile runs a two round electoral system with the highest performing candidates in the first round facing each other in the run off. As of now, the opinion polls are increasingly indicating that this runoff will take place between Daniel Jadue, of the Communist Party, and Joaquín Lavín, of the Independent Democratic Union, a hard-right party originally founded by Jaime Guzmán. That’s the same Jaime Guzmán who was the aforementioned author of the now-deceased 1980 constitution. Where such a contest might lead, both electorally and, more importantly socially, is currently anybody’s guess in these rather uncharted times.

The Days after Tomorrow

It seems clear that the constitutional process does not offer the liberatory potential some have invested in it. Yet, at the same time it is equally, if not more clear that the vote to engage in it represents a sea-change in Chilean politics. The last institutional vestiges of the Pinochet era are being cast aside and the demand to remake the country along egalitarian lines has never been stronger. As such, those keen on monitoring the Chilean situation should be wary of being bogged down by the minutiae of constitutional debates to come. The real political balance of powers will continue to develop outside of it.

The social impact of the upcoming presidential race is more difficult to determine. The relationship between the Communist Party and the proletarian grassroots is relatively strained outside of a few heartlands of support. However, Jadue is an extremely popular mayor in his home comuna of Recoleta where he has introduced a swathe of community-owned enterprises, from pharmacies to supermarkets to furniture stores, and undeniably improved the living conditions of his constituents. The possibility that his campaign could build a mass following is very real.

Equally as important to determining this impact is the opposition. Lavín, as mentioned, is a member of the hard-right Independent Democratic Union. He was one of the infamous Chicago Boys during the Pinochet regime and later an economics editor for the right-wing newspaper El Mercurio. In 1992 he penned an apologist manifesto for the dictatorship’s economic policies and soon thereafter was elected mayor of Las Condes, one of the three hyper-wealthy Santiago regions to oppose the new constitution (as well as the end of the dictatorship), a position to which he returned in 2016 and presently serves in. However, Lavín was also mayor of central Santiago commune from 2000-2004 and has occasionally made moves to moderate his image, especially on social issues. Which Lavín emerges, the pseudo-liberal or the arch-conservative, will have a major impact on how divisive the election becomes and, concomitantly, on its social impact. Equally, whether any social fissures generated play out socially or solely politically will depend greatly on each sides’ respective reaction to the other.

The last year has only solidified the growing perception that Chilean political differences are decided on the street.

Ultimately, however, the last year has only solidified the growing perception that Chilean political differences are decided on the street. Expect this to continue. An absence of large-scale street mobilisations can only indicate that the right is winning via a popular slide into conservatism or, more likely, apathy as the constitutional process fails to deliver results. On the other hand, if the protests continue onwards or even grow, spiralling into new fronts and areas of life, expect the result to be an increasing drift leftwards – how far is a matter to be seen. This will not only be a question of the outcome Presidential vote itself but of what will be limits and opportunities in how whoever wins governs.

The October 25th referendum will live forever in Chilean memory. Already there are proposals in congress to proclaim the date a national holiday – Democracy Day. It marked a degree of triumph over the old systems once thought impossible and it did so through the literal blood and pain of the many who have been murdered, raped, arrested, injured, or tortured during this uprising. As such, it should be celebrated and, indeed, it should be remembered. The question now is how it will be remembered. Will it be remembered as the end of a process, the end of the pain of the Piñera years and the bloodshed and poverty that defined them? Or better yet, will it be remembered as merely one more landmark among many on the path to radical, reborn Chile, one that can serve as an inspiration to the rest of the world on how not only an authoritarian state can be crushed, but the authority of the capitalist dictatorship along with it.


Charlie Ebert

Charlie Ebert is a radical and a writer. He is currently based in Santiago, Chile.