Chile’s right-wing forces won the majority of seats in the Constitutional Council in a vote held on May 7. Photo: Servel/Twitter
On Sunday, May 7, over 12 million Chileans participated in the the polls to elect the 50 members of the Constitutional Council, a new body responsible for writing the country’s new constitution. According to the final results released by Chile’s Electoral Service (SERVEL), right-wing forces won the majority of seats in the Constitutional Council.
The far-right Republican Party won 23 seats, and Safe Chile, the coalition of center-right parties, won 11 seats. Meanwhile, Unity for Chile, the alliance of left-wing and center-left parties, won 16 seats. Additionally, there is one seat reserved for a representative of the Indigenous peoples.
With these results, the conservative forces, which had explicitly expressed themselves against the drafting of a new constitution, ironically now have the power to set its course.
The Republican Party, which has been in favor of maintaining the current constitution stemming from the US-backed military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), has more than a third of seats, which grants it the power to potentially block any social reform and veto it during deliberations.
Additionally, the Republican Party and the Safe Chile coalition together have more than 30 seats, necessary to approve any new norm without the need to make a pact with the left.
Meanwhile, the ruling center-left government of President Gabriel Boric and allies, which suffered a defeat, have very little room to influence the new constitution.
In this regard, on Sunday, following the announcement of preliminary results, President Boric called on the opposition “not to make the same mistakes” that they did in the previous process. “Democracy is always defended and strengthened with more democracy, and never with less,” said the president.
The head of state pointed out that “this council is going to have the republican responsibility of making these lessons a lesson to prevent history from repeating itself, and drafting a text that interprets the vast majority of the country.”
“A Constitution that is born from a democratic process will be able to have social legitimacy and provide long-term stability to our country, which is what our people need,” added President Boric.
Why are Chileans rewriting their constitution?
The demand to rewrite the country’s dictatorship-era constitution was raised during the social uprising against inequality in October 2019. A year later, in October 2020, Chileans overwhelmingly approved the drafting of a new constitution in the entry plebiscite. In May 2021, they elected a majority of independent and left-wing candidates as members of the Constitutional Convention for this responsibility. Nevertheless, the proposed constitution was turned down by 62% of the votes in the exit referendum in September 2022. This is attributed to a widespread misinformation and divisive campaign led by the conservative sectors in mass media and social media. Had it been passed, it would have become one of the world’s most progressive constitutions.
In January, the congress and the president approved a bill to launch a new constituent process to replace the country’s constitution. According to this new process, the members of the Constitutional Council will begin writing a new constitution on the basis of a draft already prepared by the Commission of Experts. They will take office on June 7 and have five months to fulfill their mission.
On December 17, the citizens will return to the polls to vote to declare themselves “in favor” or “against” the final draft in another mandatory referendum.
Return of the right?
The resounding victory of the right-wing in Sunday’s elections came as a shock to many on the left.
For Camilo Godoy, a sociologist from the University of Chile with a masters in International Studies from the University of Santiago Chile, the right’s victory points to the continued trend of “not necessarily depoliticization, but of de-ideologization of Chilean society.” Godoy highlights that this process has been occurring over the last several years and “has been encouraged by the current neoliberal system”. “Political preferences tend to be very volatile,” Godoy said, pointing to the seemingly stark shifts between the elections of Michelle Bachelet, Sebastian Piñera, and Gabriel Boric in the last decade.
Godoy argues that some of the shock may also stem from the mischaracterization of the nature of the social uprising in 2019, interpreted by many as a politicized uprising against neoliberalism and capitalism. “It is necessary to read [the uprising] beyond this dichotomy of the revolt understood in an anti-capitalist sense, but to understand that there was a fraction of society that saw in this movement a kind of catharsis. A catharsis against abuses, against the stabilization of certain injustices in society, and in that sense, it wasn’t necessarily a very ideological movement or a very politicized movement.” In other words, while the motivations for people taking to the streets may arise from the injustices of the neoliberal capitalist system, the uprising itself did not necessarily provoke a shift in political consciousness or ideologization of society against the right and its project.
The government of center-left president Gabriel Boric is another significant factor in understanding the swing to the right. The South American country continues to face a difficult economic situation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicting a 1% contraction of the country’s economy.
While Boric’s government has taken important steps to alleviate the economic burden on vulnerable sectors, for example with the increase in minimum wage and the expansion of the public health system, “these are modifications that do not alter and do not transform the economic model which we live in.”
“It is evident that in the context of a perceived crisis, the electorate is inclined towards those candidates who perhaps offer more radical measures, so, in that sense, that the right-wing constitutes a majority in the Constitutional Council comes as a kind of logical response,” Godoy added.
“When you have a president who is very pragmatic and who in the end also leaves enough space so as to not be attacked or have his leadership directly criticized, he basically decides to establish a somewhat weaker leadership… and that may give room for a greater emergence of the right,” the sociologist commented. He characterized Chile’s right as “one of the strongest and most aggressive right-wings in Latin America, that concentrates not only the media, the press, but also a large part of the companies privatized during the dictatorship, the economic sectors.”
Still, for Godoy it is not a moment for defeatism. “This is not going to be permanent, on the contrary, this country has demonstrated during the last decades that it is highly volatile ideologically, and as the left we have to take advantage of that volatility and also be able to link the micro [issues] with the macro, because that’s where the left is failing,” he states.
It is a moment for the left to “re-articulate, recompose, and reorganize itself in function of an agenda of transformation.” For Godoy, “there is a part of the population that wants to transform this model and there is another part that basically just wants to live better, but both sides have to meet. But if there is weak leadership or [leadership] that essentially opts for continuity, obviously that is going to strengthen the right-wing sectors.”