Chile’s failed constitutional referendum

By Inès Freyre

“If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” Gabriel Boric, Chile’s millennial socialist president, made his intentions very clear with this poignant promise, which he vowed to in 2021 upon his election. Chile has long been associated with the neoliberal model, which advocates for free market policies and the privatisation of public services. This economic philosophy was introduced in Chile by the ‘Chicago Boys’ – a group of economists educated at the University of Chicago who led reforms during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1970s, favouring big businesses and strict austerity, which ultimately led to a deep political construction binding market deregulation with authoritarianism. The policies that arose during this era were codified in the constitution of 1980, which still serves as Chile’s fundamental law today, with some amendments in 2005. At the time, the Chilean economy experienced unprecedented growth, accompanied by equally unprecedented inequality. Privatised housing, healthcare, and education became reserved for the rich, with some communities becoming devoid of access to drinking water. 

When Pinochet’s rule came to an end in 1990 and Chile experienced its democratic transition, the subsequent parties in power maintained many of the central pillars of neoliberalism. It is therefore unsurprising that inequality was not significantly reduced. Chile’s population eventually reached its breaking point, which was illustrated by a series of protests, most notably those in 2019 where protesters took to the streets to demand better social services, an increase in minimum wage, and most importantly: a new constitution.

Boric: A new hope

Among the crowds of protesters in 2019 was Boric himself as a student protest leader. As Chile’s youngest head of state, promising a greener and more egalitarian country, and an avid supporter of a socialist constitutional reform, his unexpected victory into office represented the change that many Chileans wanted to see in their country. Having started his term in March 2022, a draft constitution was already submitted by the assembly in July, proposing 388 articles that would guarantee housing rights, the formation of a national healthcare system, as well as promoting gender equality, environmental laws, and indigenous rights. Chileans had previously voted 78% in favour of a constitutional reform during a plebiscite in October 2020, but Boric’s referendum on the draft constitution on September 4th this year proved disastrous, with 62% of voters choosing to reject it.

The constitutional ideal that never was

The proposed constitution seemed to have everything the country could hope for; not only would it quash Pinochet-era neoliberalism that was seemingly the root cause of the social inequality many Chileans were protesting against, but it would go even further with the promotion of new rights for minorities and marginalised groups. Why then did such an ideal reform fail? Perhaps it was too good to be true; despite being an ideal, it was one that Chileans could not ignore the utopian nature of. Some point to the problem lying in the makeup of the constituent assembly in charge of drafting the constitution, which drew attention due to its strong presence of politically inexperienced independents. Ambiguity was a major drawback of the text, as some articles included rights to ‘neurodiversity’ and ‘care from birth to death’, lacking substance defining how this would be carried out and ensured. Furthermore, despite the supposed support for economic reform, not everyone was ready to risk losing the strong capital markets and steady economic growth credited for attracting widespread international investment. Economists projected a 9-14% loss in gross domestic product (GDP) resulting from the constitution’s proposed changes, and this served as a deterrent for much of the upper-class and big business elites. Aside from issues that arose from the contents of the draft, perception and communication also served a role in polarising opinions. Right-wing opponents characterised the draft as a left-wing manifesto, pointing towards lack of diversity in the drafting process and creating a wave of political sensationalism in the media, which was already ridden with fake news. Fearmongering and misinformation was widely disseminated on social media platforms, claiming that the draft would allow abortions up to the ninth month of pregnancy, ban private property, or even abolish uniformed police, which was all false. Ultimately, whether by fault of media manipulation that discredited the draft’s legality, or by virtue of clashes in values that people wanted but failed to see codified, Chileans refused to recognise the constitution’s legitimacy as a legal document that could produce real and productive change. The draft’s glaring unpopularity was not a surprise, as the referendum’s failure had been predicted by polls weeks ahead. Boric himself announced that he would be open to discussing an alternative version of the draft before the referendum even took place, and the right promised to propose new constitutional amendments whether the draft was approved or not.

What to expect ahead

Although the draft’s rejection was a major setback and “one of the most politically difficult moments” for Boric’s government, it does not mark the end of his battle for constitutional reform. Despite the rejection, Chileans still want a new constitution, just not the one proposed on September 4th. A new potential draft may be in sight in the coming months, but will require more negotiation from all sides, and perhaps the acceptance of more moderate change from the left who may have pushed for too much too soon. What is left to be determined is whether Boric succeeds in his quest to bury neoliberalism for good; after all, he is only just starting his presidential journey, and there remain many more opportunities for him to fulfil his promise.

Image: Daniel M. on Unsplash