On​ 4 September, 62 per cent of Chilean voters chose to reject the newly drafted constitution, designed to replace the one imposed by the Pinochet regime in 1980. Even in the Santiago metropolitan region, 55 per cent were against. Margins were high in every income group. According to a study by Miguel Angel Fernández and Eugenio Guzmán, the bottom fifth of earners voted ‘no’ by 75 per cent to 25; at the top of the income ladder, the figures were 60 per cent to 40. The result was a stunning defeat for the country’s left, handing political momentum back to conservative forces after three years in which the left had seemed to be in the ascendant. The victory of the rechazo (rejection) camp comes at a moment when Latin America is poised between a possible revival of the progressive ‘Pink Tide’ and a resurgent, increasingly extreme right. In Chile and beyond, much hangs on whether the result is taken as a sign of the way the winds are blowing.

Across its 388 articles, three times as many as the existing constitution, the rejected document sought to give institutional form to the insurgent impulses behind the protests of 2019-20, which brought the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera to the brink of collapse. It incorporated demands from feminist, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, ecological and other movements. It proposed a total overhaul of the country’s political institutions and economic model, marking a break with the neoliberal dogma of the dictatorship’s charter. It recognised Chile’s ‘plurinational’ character, giving greater autonomy to the Mapuche and other Indigenous groups, who according to the last census make up 13 per cent of the population. Many of its social provisions – among them access to healthcare, free public education and making water (currently privatised) a public good – are broadly popular, even among those who voted to reject it. A month after the rechazo’s resounding victory, a survey by the Laboratorio Constitucional at Diego Portales University found that 79 per cent of people still favoured a new constitution. So why did this draft fail?

Demands for a new constitution were central to the protests that broke out in October 2019. Triggered by a rise in public transport fares, the demonstrations quickly expanded in scope, turning into what became known as the estallido social, ‘social outburst’. Rolling street protests placed the entire legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship in question, as well as condemning the failure of centre-left Concertación governments, in power for all but eight years since 1990, to break with the neoliberal model. In the words of one protest slogan: ‘It’s not thirty pesos but thirty years.’ Attempting to contain the unrest in November 2019, the Chilean Congress agreed to hold a referendum on whether a new constitution should be drafted. Delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the vote was eventually held in October 2020, and produced an overwhelming mandate for change: 78 per cent voted in favour, and 79 per cent agreed that an entirely new body should be elected to draft it.

At the time, the result was seen as a rejection of both the existing constitution and the Chilean political establishment. The discredit of the main political parties carried over into the May 2021 elections for the Constitutional Convention. The People’s List, a loose coalition of independents, finished third with 16 per cent of the vote, ahead of the main centre-left alliance and only narrowly behind the left-wing bloc formed by Gabriel Boric’s Frente Amplio, the Chilean Communist Party and others. Although the right came first with 20 per cent, this was its worst performance in decades and far short of the blocking minority it had sought. The upshot was a Constitutional Convention that was further to the left than many had expected, and in which established parties had much less sway than they would have wanted. The convention began work on the new constitution in July 2021, as Piñera’s presidential term was coming to its end. The elections in November to replace him pitted Boric against the hard-right candidate, José Antonio Kast; Boric’s victory, to a large extent built on the energies of the estallido social, once again suggested the left had the advantage.

Against this backdrop, the victory of the rechazo camp last month seems all the more dramatic a reversal. How and why did the momentum shift the other way? One crucial factor is that the right had more than a year to campaign against the new constitution, whereas the ‘approve’ camp only got started once the draft was submitted in July 2022. Since they could not shape the drafting of the document within the convention, the right largely withdrew from discussions, instead attacking the constitution before it was even written. Having a head start was not the right’s only advantage: they also massively outspent the ‘approve’ camp, accounting for 74 per cent of the contributions registered by the Chilean Electoral Service, and an even higher proportion of those that went unregistered.

The rechazo campaign also made ruthless and effective use of misinformation about the draft constitution’s content. Voters were repeatedly told that it would permit abortions up to the last minute – evangelical churches played a key role in spreading this falsehood – and that it would remove the right to home-ownership, force everyone to use the public healthcare system and deprive workers of control over their pensions. The draft constitution’s historic recognition of Chile’s Indigenous groups also touched some deep nationalist, and racist, nerves. It wasn’t only the right that was troubled: even centre-left figures such as the former president Ricardo Lagos depicted the concept of ‘plurinationality’ as a threat to national unity (‘We’ve had one flag and one national anthem for some time,’ he told a radio host in April). The polarisation around Indigenous issues helps explain why the rechazo side secured some of its highest votes in Araucanía, where the Chilean security services have been called in to tamp down Mapuche resistance to logging companies.

Although the right formed the core of the opposition to the new constitution, it found allies elsewhere on the political spectrum. The rechazo campaign’s most astute ploy was to agree that the country did need a new constitution – just not this one. Ironically, it was aided in this by the Boric government, which late in the campaign announced that even if approved, the new constitution could still be amended. This may have been an attempt to sway doubters by making the vote seem less all-or-nothing, but the effect was to make approval seem pointless or unnecessary.

All these factors contributed to the rechazo campaign’s success, but they don’t fully account for it. For many of Chile’s political players, from the right and centre-right to the centre-left, the real explanation is straightforward: the draft constitution was too radical. A portion of the Chilean left seems to agree with this analysis, arguing that the document’s emphasis on gender parity and expanded rights for a range of previously marginalised groups made it overly focused on questions of ‘identity’, as opposed to bread-and-butter issues, which have only become more pressing amid an ongoing economic crisis. Many Chileans have serious material concerns: inflation stands at 14 per cent, and unemployment at 8 per cent. But it’s not clear that this translated into a rejection of ‘identity politics’, nor that the latter was as significant a factor as it has been made out to be. According to the Laboratorio Constitucional survey, even now 77 per cent favour gender parity in the drafting of a new document, and 54 per cent support reserved seats for Indigenous groups.

There is also the question of how large the mandate for change really was. The proposed constitution’s transformative vision was built on fragile foundations. Both the 2020 vote on whether to draft one and the 2021 elections for the Constitutional Convention produced stunning victories for the radical left and for independent social movements. But these were deceptive landslides, based on low turnouts: 51 per cent for the 2020 vote, and 43 per cent for the 2021 presidential elections. One of the enabling conditions for Chile’s remarkable constitution-making was mass abstention. September’s turnout was boosted by the return of compulsory voting, resulting in a participation rate of 86 per cent. All told, just under thirteen million Chileans cast a vote – almost five million more than in the second round of the presidential elections. This does not mean, however, that the rechazo camp’s idea of a ‘silent majority’ finally having their say is correct. The 4.9 million votes secured by the apruebo camp are also an improvement on Boric’s total from 2021, suggesting that the issue was less a collapse in support than an inability to extend the left’s constituency.

The content of the draft may have been part of the problem, but the result may also reflect a deeper problem of political organisation. The left’s inability to reach the broad mass of the population meant there was a vacuum the rechazo was able to exploit. It is worth comparing Chile’s decision with other constitutional processes in Latin America. The rechazo’s 62-to-38 per cent win strikingly reverses the results of constitutional referendums held in Ecuador in 2008 and Bolivia in 2009. There the margins were, respectively, 64 to 28 per cent and 61 to 39 per cent in favour of the new constitutions, on comparably high turnouts: 76 per cent in Ecuador, 90 per cent in Bolivia. It’s striking, too, that Chile reversed the political sequence that took place in Bolivia and Ecuador. In both these countries, the new constitution ratified a political transformation that had already been set in motion, by the elections of Evo Morales in 2005 and Rafael Correa in 2006. Chile’s draft constitution attempted to do the opposite, not only anticipating a hoped-for transformation of the country but aspiring to be the mechanism through which that transformation would be achieved. For all the constitution’s laudable innovations, there was something inherently wishful about it. In the end, the distance between programmatic imagination and the organisational capacities required to implement it could not easily be closed.

Chile’s future now hangs in the balance. The Boric government was already on the retreat before the referendum result – the president’s approval ratings have slid from 56 to 27 per cent since March – and its room for manoeuvre has shrunk even further. In the wake of the rechazo, Boric reshuffled his cabinet, replacing two of his key allies with figures from the centre-left. The process of hashing out a new constitution is now in the hands of the Congress, where between them the right and centre-right have almost half the Senate and just under half of the Chamber of Deputies. Three years on, Chile’s political establishment is closing the door on the estallido social’s original demands. Yet that, in turn, will leave the underlying inequities of the Chilean political and economic model unaddressed, storing up further discontent. The rechazo camp has successfully blocked the left’s attempt to remake Chile, but the larger question of what kind of country it will be remains undecided.

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