Jonathan Maunders looks at the factors behind the decisive vote against replacing Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution with a far more progressive one
Last weekend Chileans voted against a proposed new constitution in what is a huge setback for Chile’s left-wing government, led by President Gabriel Boric.
With more than 99.9% votes from the mandatory ballot now counted, a staggering 69% of Chilean voters decided to reject the new constitution, prompting Boric to call on representatives across the political spectrum to meet with him to agree a path forward.
Chile’s existing constitution is a legacy from the era of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and has been a source of anger for many who argued it preserved inequalities, including limited rights for Chile’s indigenous communities.
Boric’s proposed constitution would have instead allowed indigenous peoples greater constitutional recognition, as well as making free education and healthcare legal rights. It would have also gone further to enshrine gender equality and protection for the environment.
In 2020, a year of mass protests aimed against Chile’s structural inequality forced then-president Sebastián Piñera to call an initial referendum on whether the existing constitution should be replaced. In that vote, close to 80% of Chileans elected to do away with the old constitution.
A year later, Boric, who was involved in negotiations calling for that referendum, won the Chilean presidency having harnessed support from the broad coalition of activists opposed to the Pinochet-era constitution. It is this that makes Sunday’s result all the more surprising to many outsiders.
How did 'No’ win?
Following that referendum result, months of tough negotiations have acted to disaffect some who wanted swifter change and grew concerned that other issues affecting Chile were being neglected.
Others have argued that Boric’s proposed constitution was poorly written and suggested it read like a list of demands rather than a cohesive document.
Meanwhile, right-wing figures in Chile were unsurprisingly opposed to the new constitution and many even attacked planned guarantees for indigenous communities, insisting that it would damage the nation’s integrity.
There was also a wide-ranging disinformation campaign aimed at convincing Chileans that the new constitution would see people removed from their homes and prompt civil unrest.
There is little doubt that these factors had some influence on the result. However, there is perhaps a greater reason for Boric’s defeat, absent in many media reports.
This reason is perhaps best illustrated by the nature of the demonstrations that followed the referendum result on Sunday evening. While some on the right were concerned that there might be protests on the scale of those seen in 2019-2020, only a couple hundred people turned up to protest against the referendum result.
While Boric was able to mobilise those who had protested against inequality to help power his presidential bid, he has done little to mobilise them since.
Many of Boric’s policies have been steps in the right direction, such as announcing an increase in the minimum wage and an increase in subsidised food provision. However, many have argued that his policies should go further and that he hasn’t done enough to distance himself from the neoliberal policies.
In the aftermath of the referendum defeat, Gabriel Boric has responded by reshuffling his cabinet. As part of this he has removed some of the more radical elements of his cabinet, sending a worrying signal that his government will shift to the right.
This would no doubt further alienate those who campaigned for Boric to be president and further erode support for a radical new constitution. It simply plays into the hands of those on the right who wish for only modest changes to the Pinochet-era constitution, or none at all.
Those who boldly took to the streets in 2019 and 2020 must return to demand that Boric retains the radical agenda he was elected on and help build support for a new constitution that can finally draw a line under Pinochet’s legacy of inequality.
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