Chileans have rejected a new Constitution, but they still need to replace the old one
Chilean voters’ decision to reject a new Constitution that would have replaced the 1980 charter written under the brutal military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet could deepen the country’s political divisions and throw its future into uncertainty. The new document, supported by Chile’s 36-year-old leftist President Gabriel Boric, would have transformed South America’s most free market-friendly country into a state-driven, rights-rich welfare society. But the voters seem to have concluded that the draft went too far. With almost all votes counted, 62% of voters said ‘No’. The Constitution drafting process itself was the result of months-long social and political struggles. Chile witnessed street protests in 2019 — triggered by a modest rise in subway fares — which prompted then President Sebastián Piñera to promise to rewrite the Constitution. Despite amendments, the Pinochet-era Constitution remains a pro-business, pro-market document, restricting state intervention in the economy. While Chile has seen fast development ever since its market reforms, it has also grown into one of the most unequal countries in the region, leading to disquiet. Mr. Boric rose from this chaos. In his election campaign in 2021, he had promised a new beginning. The referendum was his best opportunity to rewrite Chile’s future. But Mr. Boric and his comrades seem to have lost the momentum.
The 170-page, 388-Article document promised to legalise abortion, provide universal health care, mandate gender parity in government, empower labour unions, and tighten regulations on mining. It also sought to define Chile as a “plurinational” state that would recognise its 11 Indigenous groups, who make up some 13% of the population — they could have their own governing structures and legal systems. This proposal became the rallying cry of the rejection camp which argued that the enhanced rights of the indigenous communities (including veto powers on big-ticket projects) and the limits the new Constitution would place on security agencies would promote anarchy. Rising inflation and a militant uprising by the Mapuche community made it difficult for Mr. Boric to sell the proposals to voters. Chile is now back to square one. The old Constitution would remain in force until Chile’s political class finds a way ahead. Mr. Boric has promised to repeat the Constitution process — elections to the constituent assembly and then preparation of another draft that is put to a referendum — which would take time. The conservatives and centrists, who ruled Chile since the fall of the dictatorship, would try to maximise their interests in the coming elections. But political struggles could only make the political crisis worse. As Chileans have demanded the old Constitution be repealed and replaced, it is for the politicians to provide them a document that they would support. For that, they should start with building consensus on the future of the country.