Is This the Year of Structural Change in Chile?

The Left is racking up victory after victory in Chile. Now, Chileans have the chance to clear away the last remnants of Pinochet's authoritarian, neoliberal rule by writing a new, democratic constitution.

Communist Party candidate Irací Hassler speaks through a megaphone on May 17 in Santiago, Chile during the celebration of her triumph as mayor of of the city. (Felipe Figueroa / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The social uprising that exploded in October 2019 has changed the course of Chilean politics.

After high school students launched a massive fare evasion protest against the rise in subway prices that month, latent frustrations and accumulated injustices prompted millions of chilenos to mobilize against social inequality and unresponsive government. People demonstrated, banged pots, and marched to demand structural change in this highly unequal country. Smaller groups burned barricades in the streets, fought police, and filled walls with graffiti.

The social uprising ultimately triggered a process to change the 1980 constitution of dictator Augusto Pinochet. That process, which began in 2020, has produced historic defeats for the Right, as the Left, center-left, and independents have won major victories nationwide, including in races for governor last Sunday.

Chile’s Social Uprising

When protests first erupted in the fall of 2019, the conservative government of multimillionaire Sebastián Piñera responded with violence, calling the army onto the streets for the first time since the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) and imposing a State of Exception that imposed curfews and incursions on citizens’ rights.

Piñera then sent a raft of draconian measures to Congress: “modernization of the Carabineros,” the militarized police; the creation of a new national intelligence system; a Statute of Protection for the Police; a prohibition against wearing bandanas at protests; legislation against looting, vandalism, and street barricades; and legislation to allow the armed forces to “protect public infrastructure” without the civilian government having to declare a constitutional state of exception.

During the protests, the Carabineros shot directly at demonstrators’ faces, mutilating or blinding the eyes of 460 people. Several international human rights organizations documented the government’s excessive use of force

But the crackdown only aggravated popular outrage. People were fed up with years of increasing prices and low salaries, domination of economic and political life by the same oligarchic families, poor public health services, paltry pensions, and expensive privatized education. Chile’s macroeconomic statistics, which paint a picture of a relatively high-income country, mask the extreme inequality among social sectors. Only 20 percent of Chileans live as if in a developed country; the rest suffer precarious conditions, some extreme.

To give a few examples: a 2019 study by the Lancet showed that a woman in a poor district of Santiago lives up to eighteen years less than a woman in a rich neighborhood in the same city. Chile’s privatized health system is excellent (for those who can pay its First World fees), but the public health system — which serves 80 percent of the population — is underfunded and overcrowded. Almost 10,000 persons died just in the first half of 2018 waiting for an operation or treatment in the public system. A recent study found that at least 2.2 million chilenos (more than 700,000 families) live in substandard urban conditions defined by poor housing; few or no green spaces, banks, supermarkets, and other services; and high levels of delinquency and street crime.

The Struggle to Democratize Chile

Protesters’ multiple grievances eventually crystallized into one demand: replace the current constitution with one that defines and protects socioeconomic and political rights.

The 1980 charter, prepared by Pinochet functionaries during the seventeen-year dictatorship, erased the state’s role in guaranteeing social well-being, enshrined neoliberalism, and entrenched antidemocratic political structures. It was amended several times after the transition from military rule, especially in 2005, but it continues to be roundly rejected by a majority of chilenos due to its authoritarian impact and its illegitimate origins.

To calm the massive demonstrations, in November 2019 Piñera and ten political parties in Congress (not including the Communist Party, PC) signed the Acuerdo por la Paz Social y la Nueva Constitución (Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution), setting up a constitutional process to replace the 1980 charter, with some limits (including requiring a two-thirds vote to approve any clause).

The following October, Chileans went to the polls with two questions on the ballot: Do you approve or reject writing a new constitution? And if you approve, who should draft it, a Constitutional Convention of popularly elected citizens, or a mixed body with half citizens and half legislators?

Despite the pandemic and the perpetual State of Exception, 51 percent of the electorate turned out. The result was astounding: 78 percent voted for a new constitution, and 79 percent for a popularly elected Constitutional Convention.

This level of commitment to transformative change (and rejection of traditional political elites) hadn’t been seen in years — it far surpassed the plebiscite of 1988, for instance, when 56 percent of Chileans voted against Pinochet retaining power. Chileans roundly rejected the current system and demanded a new constitution to create and safeguard good public health and education systems, decent pensions, labor and housing rights, public water resources (currently privatized), and environmental protection.

The next step in the process came in May 2021, when voters chose the 155 members of the Constitutional Convention as well as mayors, governors, and city council members, in four separate ballots. Thanks to the strong women’s movement and the social explosion of 2019, the convention was designed to have gender parity and designated seats for indigenous peoples, both a global first. Turnout was lower; 43 percent of the electorate voted. (One factor in poor neighborhoods was the unexplained disappearance of municipal buses, which made it problematic for people to reach their polling places.)

Despite these difficulties, voters elected a majority of independents and leftists to the Constitutional Convention. A new generation of independents, some linked to social movements, took forty-seven seats. Indigenous representatives had seventeen reserved seats, and members of a left coalition called Apruebo Dignidad — the new left Frente Amplio (FA) plus the Partido Comunista (PC), along with several social organizations — won twenty-eight seats. The coalition of the centrist ex-Concertación parties — La Lista del Apruebo or Unidad Constituyente, comprised of the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party — came in third among the party coalitions with twenty-five seats, fifteen for the Socialists and only two for the Christian Democrats.

The Right, including Piñera’s party — which originally opposed a new constitution — failed to reach its goal of winning one-third of the seats in order to block major constitutional changes. The parties of the Right won a combined thirty-seven seats. The extreme right, pinochetista party Los Republicanos, failed to net a single spot in the convention.

The Left and independents also captured key mayoralties and governorships — for the first time, a communist, the young female economist Irací Hassler, was elected mayor of Santiago — while candidates backed by Piñera’s coalition, Vamos por Chile, ran poorly. In the wake of the results, three presidential hopefuls (right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei, center-left candidate Heraldo Muñoz, and centrist candidate Ximena Rincón) dropped out of the race.

After several weeks of intense and sometimes nasty campaigning, the regional run-off elections for governors took place last Sunday. While turnout was low, nationally, the Right (including President Piñera’s Vamos por Chile) suffered a crushing defeat. Vamos por Chile secured only one governorship, in Araucanía; the other fifteen regions of the country will be governed by forces in opposition to the Right and Piñera. (Interestingly, the ex-Concertación coalition Unidad Constituyente [Partido Socialista and Democracia Cristiana, among others] did well, winning seven governorships and bringing its total to ten).

In the hard-fought race for governor of the Santiago metropolitan region, DC candidate Claudio Orrego defeated FA-PC candidate Karina Oliva, 52.6 percent to 47.4 percent. Oliva’s popularity in the May election had forced an unexpected run-off, but Orrego was able to capture overwhelming majorities in the well-off and conservative northeast sectors of the city. In other parts of the country, several environmentalists and independents won governorships.

The Road Ahead

The prospect of a progressive constitution and the election of leftist mayors and governors has alarmed right-wing Chilean parties and leaders. Earlier this month, ahead of the run-off elections, Senator Francisco Chahuán of the Renovación Nacional (Piñera’s party) called for a united front between Piñera’s rightist coalition and centrist forces “to avoid the red tidal wave of the extreme left” in the country. Some media outlets compared his call to the 1970 center-right coalition against socialist Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular.

Meanwhile, schisms have appeared between the convention’s Left and center-left, especially regarding the threshold needed to approve the new constitution’s clauses. The November 2019 accord between Piñera and the parties in Congress — including the Right — had called for a two-thirds convention super-majority to pass any new clause as well as the new constitution itself.

For critics on the Left, this stipulation evoked the “binomial system” Pinochet implemented in 1989 to ensure the Right’s domination in Congress. (The system locked in the Right’s outsized power, allowing a minority to block legislation; it remained in place until 2015). Since the Right obtained only 22 percent of the popular vote in the plebiscite and the constitutional election, critics argue they should not be able to impede structural change.

Earlier this month, a group of thirty-four Mapuche and independent constituyentes published a document insisting that the convention shouldn’t be subordinated to the November agreement and its rules and norms (while also calling for freedom for the protesters incarcerated since 2019, among other demands). Shortly thereafter, ninety-one constitutyentes, largely ex-Concertación, criticized that declaration and said the agreement should be respected.

Meanwhile, right-wing figures have continued to characterize protesters as vandals and delinquents and denounce the independents as copycats of the Venezuelan model. These voices, continuing the virulent campaign of the Right and the highly partisan mass media, have attempted to link Daniel Jadué, a communist mayor and strong presidential contender, to Maduro, Venezuela, and Cuba.

The next important elections are in July, when two coalitions (Vamos por Chile and Apruebo Dignidad) will hold primaries for the presidency. The presidential election is scheduled for November. And the Constitutional Convention will soon start its work.

The results are unpredictable, given the shifting alliances and positions of the key political forces within the convention. All eyes will be on the Left and center-left, to see if they can work together to transform popular discontent and desire for change into a progressive, democratic constitution to create a more egalitarian society.

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J. Patrice McSherry is a political scientist and professor emeritus of Long Island University, currently collaborating with the Institute of Advanced Studies (IDEA) of the University of Santiago, Chile. Her most recent book is book is Chilean New Song: The Political Power of Music, 1960s-1973 (2015).

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