Chile at constitutional crossroads as President Boric calls for referendum

Pinochet's ghost still haunts the battle for the country’s institutional soul


On the ash-grey slopes of the Andes, the Atacama Desert gives way to valleys dotted with vineyards and orchards. In La Serena, Chile’s second-oldest city, street vendors hawk avocados and handicrafts to tourists admiring the neoclassical architecture and palm-lined plazas. Yet beneath the tranquility, tensions simmer over Chile’s future course. Citizens here harbour mixed feelings about rewriting the country’s constitution and transitioning from the Pinochet era. Some welcome change, while others fear upending a system that enabled prosperity.

“The constitution feels outdated, but they went too extreme,” says Juanita Ramirez, a cafe owner wary of reviving unrest. “We need reform, but not everything needs changing.” Her ambivalence reflects national soul-searching as Chile grapples with redefining its social compact. The process has laid bare ideological rifts over whether continuity or a new chapter best secures the common good.

Chile’s contested constitutional journey began in October 2019, when protests against inequality and cost of living pressures exploded into vandalism and clashes. The mass frustration, unleashing pent-up rage toward the free-market model, forced then-president Sebastian Piñera to initiate a replacement for Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1980 constitution.

In 2020, nearly 80 per cent of Chileans voted to draft a new charter. A year later they elected a predominantly leftist Constitutional Convention to undertake the task. This 155-member assembly pursued systemic change, approving a progressive text expanding social rights and recognising Chile’s ethnic diversity.

On September 4, 2022, Chileans voted decisively to reject a proposed new constitution that would have replaced the current charter enacted under military dictator Augusto Pinochet. The landslide defeat was a major setback for Chile's young leftist president Gabriel Boric, who had championed the ambitious progressive draft.

Boric came to power in March 2022 at just 36 years old, after being elected on promises of installing a more egalitarian and inclusive order in Chile. The massive 2019 protests against inequality that rocked Chile during Boric's time as a student activist propelled him into politics with a mandate for reform.

Yet Boric lacked majorities in Chile's congress, making enactment of a new constitution the key avenue for his transformational economic agenda. As a former protest leader demanding Pinochet's charter be scrapped and replaced, Boric vocally advocated for voters to approve the convention's proposed constitution. Its defeat thus clouded prospects for the substantive reforms Boric pledged.

But its ambitious 388-article vision for a new “plurinational” state in the style of Evo Morales’s remaking of Bolivia, alarmed moderates The draft constitution pursued a sweeping expansion of social rights, recognition of Chile's ethnic diversity, gender equality, decentralization and environmental protections. But its expansive scope fueled fears of economic instability and institutional chaos if implemented. Voters rejected the dramatic overhaul by a margin of 62 per cent, dealing a blow to Boric and the leftist convention delegates.

Still, polls showed that around 75 per cent of Chileans want a new constitution produced by democratic means.

In the wake of this stinging rebuke, Boric walked a fine line between respecting Chileans' verdict and keeping his reformist platform alive. Lacking congressional majorities but needing to deliver on demands for change, the president negotiated a compromise to give reformers another shot at a constitution.

A new 24-member Constitutional Council was formed in June 2022, featuring equal representation from Chile's left and right political factions. Over four months they drafted a more centrist proposal to be voted on in a September 2023 referendum. Boric has maintained vocal support for this revised text as the legitimate chance at a new charter Chileans seek.

This 24-member body aims to balance stability concerns with demands for an inclusive charter. Their revised draft will face a referendum in September 2023. If approved, Chile will finally overturn Pinochet’s legacy. If rejected again, Chile’s current magnus carta stays in place despite its social deficits.

Boric, a former student activist elected in 2021, has staked his ambitious economic agenda on enacting a new constitution. Yet divisions remain on how far leftward Chile should pivot after decades of conservative continuity and military rule. Chileans increasingly seek a judicious middle path blending change with prudent safeguards.

In northern Chile, the constitutional debate stirs both hope and anxiety. “We need guarantees the new constitution protects normal Chileans, not just activists,” says retired engineer Tomas Rodriguez. But Andrea Nunez, a teacher, counters that real change is overdue. “Chile can show the world a new progressive vision focused on people’s dignity, not just profits.”

As they ponder Chile’s direction today, citizens across this narrow coastal country agree their democracy has proven impressively resilient. An engaged public continues debating reform options through a legitimate constitutional process. Now Chileans face another referendum, with destiny hanging in the balance. Their epochal choice on rights and identity promises to shape Chile's story for generations.

A historic rupture

Chile reached this pivotal juncture after an explosion of discontent starting in October 2019. A proposed metro fare hike sparked student protests that mushroomed into a nationwide uprising. Millions took to the streets demanding systemic change. Amid clashes, vandalism and military deployments, President Sebastián Piñera agreed to initiate a constitutional replacement process.

A 2021 Constitutional Convention split between independents and party-affiliated delegates to undertake the task. Convention president Elisa Loncón and vice president Jaime Bassa, both Mapuche indigenous activists, signaled a sharp left turn.

Over the next 12 months, the convention drafted the 388-article magnum opus envisioning a new progressive order in Chile. It enshrined novel rights to healthcare, education, housing, and other social guarantees absent in the current charter. The president’s powers were reduced, and Congress enlarged to better reflect Chile’s political diversity. Chile would also become a “plurinational” state officially recognising the country’s indigenous peoples, comprising 13 per cent of the population.

The convention’s draft constitution also pursued gender equality, environmental protections and community-focused policies aimed at reversing Chile’s stark economic inequality. But the scope of the proposed overhaul alienated many of Chile’s cautious centrists. In a September 2022 referendum, an overwhelming majority of Chileans rejected the mammoth text. They deemed its dramatic changes too risky for Chile’s stability and prosperity.

Back to the drawing board

The convention’s surfeit of progressive zeal ultimately drowned hopes for a new charter. Yet demands for reform persisted after the bruising defeat. In December 2021, Gabriel Boric, a 36-year old former student protest leader, narrowly won the presidency campaigning for a more egalitarian, inclusive Chile.

The rejection of the initial constitutional draft jeopardized Boric’s reform plans, however. Lacking an executive-legislative majority, his administration depended on a new constitution as its vehicle for “structural” change. But Boric recognised that Chileans remained wary of wholesale reinvention.

In a compromise with the conservative opposition, the two sides negotiated creation of a new Constitutional Council to draft a scaled-back charter hewing closer to the political center. This 24-member body featuring equal representation from Chile’s left and right officially launched in June 2022.

Council members included lawmakers, academics, activists and other eminent Chileans of diverse ideologies. Former presidents Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet lent their prestige to the effort by participating. Compared to the previous convention’s dominance by independent leftists, this new group offered broader perspective.

Over nearly five months of intense closed-door sessions, Chile’s political clans hammered out compromises on divisive topics. They sifted through popular proposals and seemingly radical changes that generated backlash previously, balancing demands for reform with stability concerns. The result was a more subdued if still transformational draft constitution of 384 articles to again put before voters.

On October 3, council president Maria Elisa Quinteros formally submitted the new text to President Boric for his review. “We have made an enormous effort to build bridges and dialogues between very different positions,” Quinteros noted in ceremonially handing over the bound document in the La Moneda presidential palace. She expressed hope Chileans would ratify the charter but acknowledged nothing was guaranteed.

Now Chile’s future course will be decided at the ballot box. If the new text secures majority approval on December 17, it will become the country’s supreme governing document. Alternately, rejection will scuttle hopes for near-term constitutional renewal, leaving Pinochet’s current charter intact. For Chileans, their young democracy and Boric’s ambitious reform agenda, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Core ambitions remain

In many respects, the council’s proposal preserves the fundamental thrust of the initial draft constitution in realigning Chilean society and economy. The revised text retains its defining aspiration to build a more inclusive, egalitarian nation that sheds lingering vestiges of dictatorship rule. Chile would officially become a “social and democratic state” obligated to provide public goods like healthcare and education.

This enshrines so-called social rights absent from Chile’s current constitution, which focuses on political and civil liberties. The sprawling new charter aims to remedy Chile’s vast inequality by empowering marginalized groups and fostering equal opportunity. Increased decentralisation intends to enhance democratic participation and accessibility.

The proposed constitution also continues efforts to recognize Chile’s ethnic diversity through “plurinational” status for Indigenous groups. Affirming Chile’s multicultural character responds to demands for greater Indigenous self-determination. It aims to restore their visibility after centuries of exclusion from national life.

While preserving its core spirit, the revised draft scales back the most controversial proposals that alienated Chileans previously. The rewritten text attempts to balance reformist zeal with reassuring voters the new charter will not jeopardise Chile’s stability or prosperity. This required painful compromises by both left and right council members for the sake of viable consensus.

Among key concessions, the new draft exempts active military officers from civilian judicial oversight. It also lowers the congressional voting threshold to override constitutional interpretations by the Supreme Court. These changes mollified conservative fears of excessive limits on military prerogatives and judicial review.

But provisions like enshrining Indigenous autonomy and collective land rights remain, retaining a thrust toward greater pluralism. The council navigated a middle ground between transformation and prudence. Its work attempts to deliver changes demanded by society while ensuring Chile’s future charter reflects diverse political sensibilities.

While still transformational in scope, its compromise provisions were designed to avoid repeating the previous text’s overwhelming rejection. With Boric’s endorsement, Chileans will now vote December 17 on whether to enact this latest proposal.

Social rights and state reform

The proposed constitution's foundational innovation is enshrining extensive social rights and a larger role for the state in providing public welfare. Chile's current constitution took a minimalist approach, focused on political liberties and lean administration. The new draft mandates government safeguard broad economic and social protections.

Foremost among these are guarantees to healthcare, education, housing, social security and other publicly-funded necessities. Citizens could claim these as enforceable rights, imposing obligations on the state to ensure their provision. By constitutionalising such universal guarantees, reformers aim to remedy Chile’s entrenched inequalities.

However, doubts persist whether Chile can sustainably finance such ambitions without undermining fiscal discipline or private delivery of services. Critics warn against overly expansive and inalienable social rights that could breed endless litigation and ballooning deficits. But proponents argue Chile’s stark inequality and meager welfare spending justify bold measures.

The constitution also expands citizen participation channels to foster engaged democratic governance. Public initiatives to pass new legislation are enabled. Regional and local assemblies will involve grassroots communities in policy-making. An anti-monopoly mandate seeks to curb private concentrations of power seen as undemocratic.

Decentralising administrative and fiscal authority to sub-national governments similarly intends to disperse decision-making closer to citizens. Allowing regional autonomy and governors builds on longstanding aims to devolve power from metropolitan Chile. Together these provisions promise wider civic engagement in the country's political life.

To Boric and the left, the new text crucially enables their social democratic vision after three decades of constrained possibilities. Its rights guarantees provide constitutional ballast for long-sought welfare expansion and inclusive development. But critics see dangers in inflated expectations and fiscal adventurism.

Much rests on implementing wise policies that balance equity aims with sustainable budgets and growth. If mishandled, ambitious constitutional promises could outstrip Chile’s capacities, risking instability. Success will depend on prudently leveraging the state's strengthened role to modernize social contracts and opportunity pathways without sacrificing Chilean competitiveness.

Recognition of indigenous people

Another landmark shift is recognising Chile as a “plurinational” state and providing constitutional status for Indigenous groups comprising 13 per cent of the population. The new charter officially acknowledges Chile’s ethnic diversity beyond the dominant Spanish-descended majority. Given their centrality to Chile’s national identity, enshrining Indigenous rights and cultures signals a rediscovery of the country’s pluralistic roots.

The constitution grants indigenous communities political representation and administrative autonomy over their affairs. Reserved congressional seats for Indigenous delegates will ensure their voices are heard legislatively. Their languages will become official tongues alongside Spanish in the regions where they are spoken. Indigenous groups also gain collective ownership rights over ancestral territories.

Leftist supporters herald these measures as advancing inclusion after centuries of discrimination. They characterise it as a reconciliation vowing “never again” to repression of indigenous identities seen under Pinochet. Conservatives raise cautions about self-governance rights challenging Chilean unity. But proponents consider expanded Indigenous sovereignty essential for a modern, progressive nation.

At its core, plurinational recognition realises the cultural and political dignity denied native Chileans throughout history. It aims to integrate them into national life equitably as heirs to pre-Columbian civilizations predating the Chilean republic. By elevating Indigenous heritage as a valued component of Chile, reformers hope to foster a collective identity that resonates across all communities.

Appropriately implementing these visionary constitutional principles without creating jurisdictional disputes will require good faith efforts. But constitutionally affirming Chile’s multicultural character sets a course toward a more inclusive future. If achieved through ongoing collaboration, it can strengthen social cohesion based on shared Chilean citizenship.

Gender equality and reproductive rights

The proposed constitution also contains groundbreaking protections for women and LGBTQ groups. It enshrines gender equality as a guiding principle across all public and private institutions. No domain of society would remain exempt from promoting non-discrimination and inclusion.

This requirement also extends to political bodies, requiring gender parity in elected offices and party candidate lists. Women’s representation and perspectives should accordingly see major gains under the new charter. Gender mainstreaming intends to dismantle Chile’s profound gender imbalances that still linger.

Additionally, women would gain reproductive autonomy protections guaranteeing access to contraception, abortion and quality maternity care. By elevating reproductive health as a human right, the constitution asserts bodily self-determination freedoms long denied Chilean women. This aligns with demands by feminists who were instrumental in the uprisings against patriarchal legacies.

For LGBTQ groups, the charter prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. This constitutional shield would secure full civil rights where current statutes fall short. Same-sex couples would also see their unions and parental rights enshrined to prevent further prejudice.

Combined with emerging gender norms, these measures promise major advances recognizing Chilean women and LGBTQ citizens as fully equal under law. They offer vehicles to accelerate social change where outdated legal codes and cultural mores previously inhibited progress. By raising the bar for equality, the new constitution provides reformers legal grounds to uproot persistent biases.

Environmental protections

Chile’s proposed charter also breaks new ground prioritising environmental stewardship and climate responsiveness. The text constitutionally obliges government to safeguard ecological integrity as a core duty. Chile would become a steward of nature rather than just exploiting resources for economic gain, reflecting currents surging globally.

Under a “rights of nature” paradigm, flora and fauna gain constitutional protections too. This aims to inject greater balance considering environmental impacts in policy-making. While not granting natural features equivalent rights as humans, it compels respecting and preserving Chile's threatened ecosystems.

Additionally, the text pledges Chile to carbon neutrality by 2050 in line with its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. Additional provisions promote sustainable development, constrain industrial polluters and ensure equitable access to water. A specialist environmental court would also enforce rules against abuses.

By elevating ecological preservation doctrines as intrinsic to governance, the new charter brings Chile to the vanguard of green constitutionalism. It signals a new stewardship ethic extended to future generations and the natural inheritance they stand to lose. Critics contend provisions like empowering citizens to sue on nature’s behalf risk producing overzealous litigation and policy gridlock, however.

Much relies on translating lofty constitutional principles into pragmatic policies balancing economic needs with conservation. Analysts agree that Chile must continue transitioning its productive base toward sustainability without forfeiting growth and competitiveness. But the vision outlined stands to redefine Chilean identity and priorities around responsible climate stewardship – likely the charter’s most future-minded innovation.

Rights, duties and limitations

While ambitious in scope, Chile's proposed constitution does impose limits on expanding rights and autonomy claims. The text declares Chile as firmly committed to the international human rights framework. It bounds pluralism and self-determination by principles of constitutional obedience, good faith governance and peaceful conflict resolution.

The charter pointedly defends private property too, delineating protections required for expropriation. Although the draft mandates redistributive policies, it preserves market principles – reassuring business skeptics of a protected space for enterprise. This honors center-left commitments to building an inclusive social democracy without state domination.

Rights guarantees also balance with responsibilities like protecting the environment and respecting diversity. The proposed constitution allows rights restrictions to safeguard other constitutional objectives, following rule of law norms. It further upholds essential freedoms like expression, conscience, the right to assemble, and privacy.

By enclosing pluralism within democratic checks, the text attempts to parry rightist warnings of unchecked autonomy claims fracturing Chilean sovereignty. Reasonable constraints delineate a sphere of rights not endangering cohesion. The framework grants reform space while embedding safeguards conservatives demand as their price for approval.

This bargain acknowledges Chileans’ strong law and order ethic. Most Chileans seek an updating of their dated institutional legacy, not a dismantling of trusted foundations. By balancing reformist impulses with continuity reassurances, the council produced a synthesis charter that is both progressive and judicious in spirit.

Controversies and compromises

Inclusive vision notwithstanding, the constituent council’s proposals generated heated disputes given Chile’s polarised climate. Delicate compromises sought to bridge divides on the most controversial topics. Areas like military affairs, economic rights and social issues required nuanced balancing to ensure viability.

Regarding the armed forces, the proposed constitution maintains civilian authorities’ oversight over promotions, budgets and strategic directives. But active officers remain subject to military rather than civilian justice codes under a council concession to conservatives. Restricting prosecution aims to prevent politicized disciplinary affairs.

The council also declined prohibiting private education subsidies in favor of greater public investment. Despite pressure from student activists, current funding arrangements will remain intact. Similarly, the text preserves Chile’s autonomous central bank and fiscal requirements for increased social spending - calming fiscal discipline qualms.

On social issues, the draft constitution declares the nation’s respect for life but stops short of fully outlawing abortion. Current exceptions allowing abortion for rape, congenital defects and health risks will be maintained. However, family configurations beyond male-female married couples won recognition to conservatives’ displeasure.

Indigenous justice systems likewise will not supersede public judicial authorities, though they will have jurisdiction over internal community matters. This circumscribed autonomy answered those fearing Balkanisation from the plurinational model. All Chileans remain equal before the law.

In strategic ambiguity, social rights are framed as universal entitlements rather than absolute guarantees, leaving space for balancing competing priorities. The charter expands liberties absent in Pinochet's document but avoids radical departures that would alarm moderates. Its novelties embed in familiar rule of law foundations to ease transitions.

By finessing polarising topics, the text thus pursues reform without rupturing Chilean unity or stability. Its authors acknowledge the constitution must gain broad social legitimacy, not sharpen divisions, to enable progress. But for some activists, the compromises water down promises of systemic reform.

The road ahead

Chile is now in a marathon debate and public education blitz ahead of the December 17 referendum. As citizens study the detailed proposals that could recast Chilean society, expectations and anxieties surround what a newly empowered reformist state might bring.

Boric and advocates are mobilising aggressively to avoid a repeat of the previous draft's overwhelming rejection. This campaign is working to convince uncertain Chileans that measured change can achieve stability and social justice in equal measure. But polls show an uphill battle, with current opposition to the new text still above 50 per cent amid worries of unsettled expectations and unchecked bureaucracies.

Much rests on assuring Chileans their living standards and prosperity will be upheld under expanded welfare guarantees. Sustainability concerns surround the feasibility of enshrining an ambitious array of new socioeconomic entitlements. Critics warn of potentially ballooning deficits or higher taxes required to fulfill generous rights.

But proponents emphasise the proposed constitution only sets vital social goals, leaving flexible implementation details to legislation. Reasonable progress is expected, not absolute guarantees immediately. Ensuring good fiscal stewardship and economic dynamism remains paramount across partisan lines. Voters must have confidence new responsibilities will be prudently funded.

Success will require communicating how social investments like education, housing and healthcare underwrite Chilean productivity and growth. Equitable human capital development is positioned as the surest path to continued prosperity, not antithetical to it. Selling this vision can help secure mandates for reform.

To further allay anxieties, Boric's administration vows stability and policy continuity even if the new constitution passes. Government services and investment programs will proceed uninterrupted during any transition period. Ongoing growth and employment gains remain top priorities amid economic headwinds.

This reassurance of stability seeks to contain tendencies toward capital flight or market jitters from constitutional uncertainty. Chile cannot afford investor panic or retaliation as it navigates reforms. Demonstrating calm and vision can prevent economic disruptions.

Additionally, collaborative implementation and power-sharing will be essential to smoothly rebalance Chilean society and institutions. Wide consultation with diverse groups can ground the reform process in national consensus.

Adopting the constitution will only launch deeper societal transformations. What follows must avoid polarisation risks seen in neighboring countries' destabilising ideological turns. Governing prudently and inclusively remains vital to prove critics' worries unfounded. This next chapter's wisdom in exiting Pinochet's shadow will define Chile's future.

While uncertainties abound, approving a pluralistic charter can provide direction to Chile’s unfinished national journey. The promise of empowered citizenship and dignity across difference animates reformers. They hope Chileans share aspirations to realise their full democratic potentials after decades of restraints.

Polls indicate an engaged citizenry approaching the referendum deliberatively, whether ultimately embracing or rejecting fundamental change. This civic maturity has already shown Chile's democracy to be resilient. Now Chileans can decide about their social compact that will shape the decades ahead.

The referendum's outcome carries high stakes for Chile's identity and direction. Yet whatever Chileans decide, a society that values democratic voice and justice has firmly taken root.


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