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Chile Tries, Again, for a New Constitution

Richard Sanders

For the second time in little more than a year, Chileans are evaluating a proposed new constitution. After an earlier draft, prepared by a constitutional convention dominated by leftist delegates, was decisively rejected in a referendum in September 2022, a second draft, this time pieced together by a convention led by conservatives, will go before the public on December 17. It is a very different document, but it runs the risk of meeting the same fate as its predecessor.

Fundamentally, the existing structure of governance would be maintained: A president directly elected for a maximum of two four-year terms; a bicameral Congress; an independent judiciary; and regional governments with significant powers. That said, the proposed charter also has innovations, such as a provision for public consultation; a specialized anti-corruption agency; a reduction in the size of Congress; and a requirement that political parties obtain at least five percent of the vote to win any seats in Congress.

Largely Conservative, But Not Entirely

To gain support from leftist or at least centrist voters, the conservative delegates included some concessions. They declared Chile a “social and democratic state of law,” though one subject to “fiscal responsibility” and where private institutions play a large role.

The proposed document includes commitments to protecting the environment and respecting the rights of the Indigenous, although in more general terms than in the earlier version. It upholds the principle of “balanced” participation of men and women in the legislature, although not “parity,” as in the previous draft. Finally, it includes rights to housing, water, and consumer protection.

However, the proposed constitution includes other provisions that reflect conservative priorities.   Chile’s existing constitution, written under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, has been interpreted to allow abortion under limited circumstances. However, the new draft has raised concerns that its language may be interpreted by the courts to ban the procedure entirely.

The final version of the constitution has other features that reflect the views of the convention’s conservative majority, in which the far-right Republican Party figures prominently.”

The final version of the constitution has other features that reflect the views of the convention’s conservative majority, in which the far-right Republican Party figures prominently. One provision, for example, calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants “as soon as possible.” It also adopts conservative priorities for the country’s pension, health, and education systems, seemingly enshrining the privatized pension system and the mixed public and private health system, and giving parents a choice between public and private schools. 

The Boric administration favors an increased state role in these areas, and its supporters will likely oppose these provisions. Even some who favor the proposed approach might prefer that Congress address these issues.

Supporters and Opponents Line Up

As the constitutional referendum approaches, voters are lining up along ideological lines. The parties that brought Gabriel Boric to power–the Communists and two new leftist parties–have announced their opposition, as did the coalition of center-left parties. The centrist Christian Democratic Party has also come out against it. However, the Christian Democrats, once Chile’s leading political force, are in decline and two groupings that have broken away from it support the new draft, as do Chile’s conservative parties, both the traditional ones and the Republicans.

Surprisingly, some Republicans oppose it, arguing that it concedes too much to the left and that the existing constitution is superior. This is a headache for the Republican leader, former presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, as a successful referendum would boost his prospects for a second run.

Making the Case

Supporters and opponents now have an opportunity to make their arguments to the Chilean people. As the campaigns get underway, polling suggests that the majority of Chileans oppose the new text—by a margin of 50 percent to 32 percent, according to one recent poll, although many remain undecided.

As always, the question will be who can capture the center in a deeply divided country.”

Unhappiness with the new draft might reflect more than discontent among leftist and center-left Chilean who prefer the earlier proposal. There is also public weariness with the multiyear wrangling, and serial voting, over a new constitution, which has reproduced, and deepened, the partisan divisions that characterize much of Chilean political life these days.

Supporters of the new draft hope to use that weariness to their advantage, making the case that its passage would put the constitutional debate to bed. They will also argue that the prolonged uncertainty has discouraged investment and harmed Chile’s economy. For their part, opponents will paint it as a right-wing power grab that freezes out the views of leftist and centrist Chileans.

As of now, supporters have a uphill climb and some observers predict a close outcome. As always, the question will be who can capture the center in a deeply divided country.

About the Author

Richard Sanders

Richard Sanders

Global Fellow;
Former member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State
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