A perfect moment to rewrite a nation’s constitution occurs rarely, if ever. But, with cases of Covid-19 at new highs, leftists who have gained this opportunity for reform in Chile are worried.
“It is like a Greek tragedy,” says Claudia Heiss, the head of political science at the University of Chile. “We have waited 30 years for change [since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship]. Just as the chance comes, suddenly we face adverse conditions . . . it is very frustrating.”
The economic hardship caused by a new lockdown is not the ideal context for a debate on fundamental political change, following the demonstrations and riots of October 2019. But a ballot to elect people to an assembly to draft the new constitution is due to be held on May 15-16.
Many of the millions who took to the streets in 2019 calling for a rewrite of the constitution are no longer as engaged with the process as they were. Nearly 80 per cent of Chileans who voted in a referendum last year — about half of the eligible electorate — chose to change the constitution. However, an Ipsos poll shows that 50 per cent of the population admit they now feel ill-informed about the process.
The disintegration of the political left has also undermined the ambition to abolish the neoliberal economic model, which is criticised for not addressing inequality. Unfairness was one of the core complaints of the 2019 protesters.
Although Chile has been governed by the centre-left Concertación coalition for most of the past 30 years, splinters appeared after Michelle Bachelet stepped down as president in 2018. As well as the new Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition, which is more leftwing and popular with the young, dozens of independents have emerged, which is confusing the constitutional process.
Meanwhile, supporters of the current constitution point out that it has driven the country’s vigorous growth and lifted millions out of poverty.
Polls show support for this view and predict that the unified rightwing, led by President Sebastián Piñera, will comfortably secure more than a third of the delegates to the constitutional assembly. This will allow it to block the most radical proposals.
“The outlook for the progressive and leftwing sectors is not very encouraging . . . fragmentation is very negative for [our] transformational goals,” says Camila Vallejo, a member of Chile’s Communist party.
Jorge López, who runs Ipsos Chile, compares Chileans’ demands to a “bag of cats” because they are so varied. “They were synthesised in a magic word: dignity,” he says. “Everyone just wants a bit more dignity . . . this magic word is what led to consensus over the need for constitutional reform.”
More equality and economic redistribution, with stronger social rights in health, education, housing and pensions, are a priority. But reformers also want better representation for women, indigenous groups and disabled people. They seek a less presidentialist system, too, in which local governments wield greater power and citizens have more influence over spending.
In addition, those pushing for a shake-up want the state to be more active in promoting activity to help Chile move away from its dependence on copper, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s exports.
The proposal for each article of the new constitution must be approved by a majority of two-thirds. This means that the left’s more controversial demands — such as the abolition of both central bank independence and the fiscal rule guaranteeing macroeconomic prudence — are unlikely to succeed.
Whether conservatives can instead write these institutions into the new constitution remains to be seen.
The fear is that social demands could create a fiscal burden. Rodrigo Cerda, Chile’s finance minister, believes that a new constitution is a “great opportunity to lay down stable rules for the next 30 years”.
If public spending must rise “we will also have to look for a larger permanent income” — but this should be gradual, Cerda says.
He points to two possible solutions: restoring strong economic growth and seeking new income, possibly in the form of taxes.
Fears that Chile’s economic model could suffer irreparable damage from a constitutional change appear to be overplayed, though. López of Ipsos says that most Chileans are centrists. “It’s a myth that Chileans want to throw away the model, they just want it to work,” he says. “Ultimately, they want to improve wellbeing.”
“People seek modernisation more than radical change,” explains López. “There has not been a radicalisation in Chile but there is a huge demand for greater participation of the state [in the country’s economy],” he adds. “In this, there will be change.”
Heiss agrees the constitutional process is unlikely to produce a new economic model, but says it will become subject to change through the political process. “The danger is there will be a lot of frustration,” she warns, given that progress may be slow. “And there isn’t much patience right now.”