Why Chileans Rejected the Proposed New Constitution

Chile’s new constitution would’ve replaced its Pinochet-era charter with one that guarantees social, economic, and environmental rights for all. Why, then, did Chileans overwhelmingly reject it?

On Sunday, September 4, the command of the Movimientos Sociales por el Apruebo — militants and representatives supporting Apruebo, the “approval” of the new constitution — gathered at the headquarters of the Bata union in downtown Santiago, just steps from the iconic Plaza Dignidad (a crucial site during the October 2019 uprising). After 6 PM, results began to come in for the national referendum to approve or reject the new constitutional text, drafted over the course of a year by the Constitutional Convention, the body elected by universal vote in May 2021.

It quickly became understood that Rechazo (reject) would win, but no one had anticipated the overwhelmingness of the defeat. After months of mobilizations, one had to face and accept the victory of conservative forces against the proposed constitution, which sought nothing less than to end the 1980 constitution, written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

An Overwhelming Defeat

The result was devastating: 61.88 percent Rechazo and 38.12 percent Apruebo, with the participation of more than 13 million voters (85.81 percent of the electoral register), or 4.5 million more than voted in the second round of presidential elections in December 2021, a surge in participation accounted for by the adoption of an obligatory voting system with automatic inscription.

In the Magallanes region of the far south, where President Gabriel Boric’s family resides, Rechazo secured 60 percent of the vote — a personal defeat for the young leftist head of state. In the north, Apruebo didn’t reach 35 percent, and in the Araucanía region, where most Mapuche Indigenous communities live, rejection reached 74 percent. Not even in the great Santiago or Valparaíso, urban zones traditionally more open to change, and where various leftist mayors (including communists) were recently elected, did a majority vote in favor of the new constitution. Apruebo secured a majority in only eight of the country’s 346 municipalities.

The Right and centrists opposed to the text immediately appeared on TV and social media celebrating their victory on the streets and plazas of Santiago’s affluent neighborhoods. The extreme right also expressed its happiness. Various conservative leaders seemed astonished by the margin of their victory — an improbable scene just two years ago, when Chile, an “oasis” and “showcase” for neoliberalism, seemed to take a historic turn with the October rebellion.

The neoliberal elite has made various attempts to patch up fissures in the neoliberal model and remedy the political system’s crisis of legitimacy, which nearly led to the removal of multimillionaire president Sebastián Piñera. This was the case on November 15, 2019, when nearly all parliamentary parties signed the Accord for Social Peace and a New Constitution. This split the Frente Amplio (or “Broad Front,” a left coalition created in 2017) between those who held that the agreement constituted a necessary institutionalization of the struggles underway and those who saw it as a way to demobilize them. Groups in the streets described the agreement as a product of a new plot cooked up by the political parties, among other reasons because it was celebrated while the popular movement faced criminal repression from the Chilean state.

What’s certain is that, on December 19, 2021, one of the advisors on the agreement, Frente Amplio’s Gabriel Boric, was elected president of Chile, leading a coalition of his group with the Communist Party. This seemed to confirm, at the ballot box, the social will for change, though it was on the basis of a very moderate program and against José Antonio Kast, an ultraright candidate who translated the demand for order with the racist and xenophobic emphasis of a significant segment of the population.

This should’ve sounded off alarms, but a large part of the Left didn’t seem to hear them. Earlier, the powerful results of the 2020 plebiscite had indicated broad possibilities for sociopolitical transformation (78 percent of voters approved the idea of a new charter to lay to rest the 1980 constitution), despite the intrinsic limits of an assembly that was convened, in part, by the old parties of Congress. Other alarms should’ve also gone off back then: almost half of Chileans didn’t bother to vote, especially in working-class neighborhoods. But the energy of October still seemed present enough to possibly prevail in the Constitutional Convention, with gender parity, seats reserved for Indigenous peoples, independent representatives, and the presence of the feminist and social movements.

The new constitution wasn’t in itself going to dismantle neoliberalism, but it opened up new arenas of class struggle in Chile.

The fact that the Right found itself cornered allowed the convention to win a constitutional text that was progressive and in many ways very advanced: an end to the neoliberal subsidiary state and the construction of a “social and democratic rule of law state,” solidary and with representational parity, recognizing multiple fundamental rights, including forms of participative democracy, and with a real space for the common good and confronting the climate crisis. With a strong presence of feminist demands — like the recognition of domestic and care work — the text furthermore instated a system of public social security, the de-privatization of water, the end of the Senate in favor of a “Chamber of Regions,” and the creation (finally) of a plurinational state, integrating part of the historic demands of the Mapuche people.

Labor rights also achieved notable advancements, with industry-level collective bargaining, the effective right to strike, and exclusive union rights — that is, a Copernican revolution with respect to the current Chilean labor regulations, creating discontent among local and transnational big business. Obviously, the new constitution wasn’t in itself going to dismantle neoliberalism, but it opened up new arenas of class struggle in Chile. So how do we explain that the vast majority of Chileans turned their backs on this proposed constitution, considered a historical advance by many social organizations?

Reasons for a Defeat

It bears pointing to the ability of neoliberal elites to muster strength exactly in the arena where social struggles appeared to have defeated their socioeconomic model: the social rights enshrined by the new constitution in areas such as health, housing, access to water, education, and work.

To those ends, Rechazo forces disseminated a range of shameless lies. Through a multimillion-dollar campaign on social media, and using their near monopoly of the media, they advanced nonsense along the following lines: “The citizen will be obligated to seek treatment in an overwhelmed public health system”; “Freedom of education will be suppressed”; “State benefits will drive workers to opt for unemployment”; “Housing will be expropriated and private property will be abolished”; “The principle of equality before the law will be erased to favor Indigenous and homosexual people, among other minorities”; “Religious freedom will be done away with and evangelical communities will be persecuted”; “Abortion will be allowed at whatever stage of pregnancy”; “All border controls will be lifted”; “The law will protect criminals over victims”; “The savings of workers will be confiscated and inheritances blocked”; “The name of the country and its national emblems will be changed”; to just name a few of the declarations that appeared on basic television.

More than the variety of lies of the Rechazo campaign, it is important to highlight the Right’s capability for strategic organization.

More than the variety of lies of the Rechazo campaign, it is important to highlight the Right’s capability for strategic organization. They even skillfully decided on a campaign that affirmed being in favor of a constitutional change, just not in favor of this new constitution, and so found allies in those at the center of the political spectrum and in supporters of the former Concertación coalition.

At this point, one can appreciate the important difference to the political forces of Apruebo: although the parliamentary left and anti-neoliberal social movements picked up the majority of the Constitutional Convention seats, from that inaugural moment when the executive board was selected, differences emerged, and some constituents seemed to follow the paths and customs of the disgraced Chilean Congress. Independent members met various obstacles, and one scandal ended with the resignation of a constituent. Meanwhile, forces of the center left proved resistant to following the reformative principles of constituents tied to the social mobilizations, a hindrance reinforced by the imposition of a quorum of two-thirds to approve each article.

In many cases, and despite many inquiries and participation initiatives, the convention seemed too distant from the immediate concerns of common people and their interests, a tendency that continued through the convention’s final weeks. At the same time, it is worth underlining that various assemblies — the territorial and youth meetings and attempts at collective neighborhood work that emerged with force during October — were becoming progressively disarticulated, as much due to the effect of institutional and electoral politics as continued repression and, second, under the weight of the pandemic and the economic crisis.

On the other hand, Gabriel Boric’s government, despite promises of a progressive reform agenda, soon also found itself entangled in a public trial. When political decision was needed to move constitutional change forward, the administration inaugurated an imprecise mandate seeking “pragmatic” alliances with the former Concertación coalition in Congress — where it is a minority — in order to govern.

At many times, the real boss of the administration’s cabinet, the finance minister Mario Marcel — the former president of the Central Bank and militant of the social-liberal block that has ruled since 1990 — made his presence felt. The interior minister, Izkia Siches, has also been a focus of criticism, beginning her term by briefly seeking a dialogue with Mapuche communities in conflict only to end up backing the militarization of the area and the jailing of Héctor Llaitul, leader of the armed organization Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco.

The same can be said of the political prisoners of the October rebellion who continue serving their sentences because the executive branch can’t muster the will to advance a general pardon. There have been concrete gains in access to public health care, but the lack of progress on central issues, like its timid tax reform, does nothing to fulfill its mandate for change.

The divergences between working people, the government, and the constitutional process are obvious from the September 4 results.

The administration’s brand of progressivism appeared unwilling to confront real economic power — or mobilize its social base. Important segments that had voted for Boric began to condemn him openly. At the same time, the Right leveraged its well-oiled media machine to tie the government’s growing unpopularity to the text of the new constitution. Journalists covered the growing target of organized crime and drug trafficking profusely, associating it with the shocking situations of migrants in the north of the country. The new electorate, stirred by the mandatory vote, joined up directly with disillusioned working-class segments to consummate the broad triumph of Rechazo.

As historian Igor Goicovic notes, the divergences between working people, the government, and the constitutional process are obvious from the September 4 results. The many issues the social movements put forward during the Constitutional Convention about feminism, environmentalism, or plurinationality did not result in more cohesion among the popular electorate but rather created doubts regarding a lack of social strength to traverse the country “from below” and debate those issues:

In all the municipalities that the environmentalists denominated “sacrifice zones,” the Rechazo option prevailed by a wide margin. . . . Little different occurred in municipalities in the Biobío and Araucanía (Macrozona Sur) regions, oriented particularly toward forestry, where the conflict between forestry companies and indigenous communities has reached ever greater dimensions. . . . Looking at the electoral behavior of the municipalities of the [Santiago] metropolitan region, we find a historical tendency: the highest-income municipalities (Las Condes, Lo Barnechea, and Vitacura) vote en masse for the Rechazo option. The municipalities that tend to be middle-class, like La Reina, Providencia, Macul, Peñalolén, and La Florida, also join Rechazo, with the exception of municipalities like Maipú and Ñuñoa. While practically all of the working-class municipalities (among them, Recoleta, El Bosque, La Pintana, La Granja, Lo Espejo, Cerro Navia, Renca, and Independencia) that have historically been bastions of the Left also opted for Rechazo.

Now What?

The segment of the working class that, despite everything explained above, voted Apruebo as resolutely in the September 4 plebiscite as it did in that of 2020 today struggles with a feeling of catastrophe through which it can imagine a profound, antagonistic dilemma with the neoliberal Chilean model. Clearly, the maturation of this antagonism won’t find support in the current government.

In his address last Sunday, Boric called for national unity and to let go of “maximalisms, violence, and intolerance,” announcing a prompt change of his cabinet. He will reorder his cabinet corresponding to the trajectory toward the center that we’ve described, opening La Moneda Palace to the forces of the former Concertación coalition, which could further strain his alliance with the Communist Party. This cabinet will be designed to pass his tax reform in the form of a fiscal agreement that predictably responds to the immediate survival priorities of the administration — that is, to quickly attract capital by accommodating profitable businesses and soliciting loans to cover public costs to help contain potential mobilizations.

Regarding the constitution, the parties confirmed that they will pursue a new timetable, one that will be centered on Congress — heralding the return of the consensus politics that have been rejected since 2019 and laying to rest the transformational new constitution. On September 4, faced with the results of the plebiscite, the command of the Movimientos Sociales por el Apruebo concluded:

It is essential that the segments we organized to make possible this process also assume the task that remains laid out for us. There’s no turning back. Our people made an indisputable decision, and the task of bringing down Pinochet’s constitution and the neoliberal model continues to be the order of the day. In this process, the learning we’ve done will be fundamental, because the social movements are no longer what we were before writing this constitution.

Source: Translation by Alex Caring-Lobel for Jacobin

Frank Gaudichaud has a PhD in political science and is a professor of Latin American studies at the Toulouse-Jean Jaurès University. He is a member of the editorial board of Contre-Temps in Paris and a contributor to Jacobin.

Miguel Urrutia is a sociologist in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Chile and a member of the Libertarian left.