Chile’s New Constitution Could Guarantee Neoliberalism Dies Where It Was Born

Today Chile votes on a new constitution. Chileans have a chance to replace Pinochet’s document with one that guarantees social, economic, and environmental rights, and to bury the legacy of neoliberalism once and for all.

Chilean president Gabriel Boric holds the final draft of the constitutional proposal during its presentation at the National Congress in Santiago, July 4, 2022. (JAVIER TORRES/AFP via Getty Images)

Today the people of Chile will decide, by way of a national referendum, whether to approve or reject the recently drafted new constitution. After an excruciating month of campaigning both for and against the draft, it is nearly crunch time for this historic moment in the country.

Chileans are turning out to vote as part of the first mandatory ballot in over a decade, which has generated some uncertainty in regard to predicting the result. The Rechazo (reject) option has been leading in all the polls, but this week the closing rallies for Apruebo (approve) were massively attended in cities across the country, with hundreds of thousands attending last night’s closing rally in Santiago. The mainstream media and social media have played an important role in communicating the content of the constitutional draft, but fake news and deliberate misinterpretations of the document have dominated the narrative, making the communication process much harder for those leading the Apruebo campaign. After all, what is at stake is more important than any other election in the last thirty years.

The new constitution aims to establish a social pact that will build new foundations for the country’s future. The document, written by a democratically elected convention, includes a series of progressive principles, such as the right to nature, reproductive rights, and sexual diversity. However, it is the definition of the state that will reshape how Chile sees itself in the coming years. In the current constitution, written during the dictatorship, in 1980, and somewhat amended during democracy, the state is defined as a subsidiary, meaning that its role is reduced to only intervening in cases where private life (or the private sector) cannot. This interpretation of the subsidiary state has enabled the expansion of neoliberalism as an economic model that has infected all aspects of people’s lives, such as education, health, and housing, with little space left for government to attempt progressive reform over the years. Article 1 of the draft being voted on replaces this idea of the subsidiary state with one that sees Chile as

a social and democratic state of law [that] is plurinational, intercultural, regional, and ecological. It is constituted as a solidary republic. Its democracy is inclusive and equal. It recognizes dignity, freedom, the substantive equality of human beings and their indissoluble relationship with nature.

This radical change will set the ground for a welfare state, the likes of which Chile has never seen, and will prepare the country to deal with the crises of climate change, violence against women, and social inequalities.

Despite the profound transformations that the draft is proposing, the right-wing efforts to reject the document have dominated public discourse. According to a report in the national newspaper La Tercera, at the beginning of the campaign in late July, the Rechazo campaign’s monetary contributions outpaced those of the Apruebo campaign by over 200 percent. This has allowed the Right to put money into regional and local radio, national media, and social media (particularly through the use of bots).

One of the most common lies perpetuated by the Rechazo campaign has been that the new constitution will expropriate everybody’s homes, as private property is not protected in the document, and that the establishment of plurinationality will mean the breakup of the state into many countries with their own juridical systems, to the sole benefit of minority indigenous groups. The spread of these lies has mobilized nationalists, along with racist and xenophobic sentiments, that has translated into attacks on human rights memorials, the deliberate running over of cyclists during an Apruebo campaign rally, and a violent attack against Fabiola Campillai, a member of the Senate who was blinded during the social uprising of 2019.

Despite these acts of violence and intimidation, the Rechazo campaign, led by a coalition of politicians ranging from the far right to the political center, has cynically adopted the slogan “Rechazo con amor” (I reject with love). They argue that the draft has only divided the country and, although a new constitution is needed, this must be written by parliamentarians, who would better represent the political sectors that were not elected to the Constitutional Convention in 2021.

While the tension within the Rechazo campaign is visible, their political and economic interests in maintaining the status quo, and their privileges along with it, have unified those who say they wish to protect democracy with those far-right elements that are actively attacking democracy with physical violence. If the reject option wins on Sunday, those supporting Rechazo will no doubt split into different factions, with some seeking to maintain the current constitution (with perhaps some minor reforms) and others wanting a new constitutional process but led by Parliament. This scenario will create even more political uncertainty and most likely another round of street demonstrations like those seen in 2019.

If the Apruebo campaign wins, the effects of the new constitution will not be rapidly visible. The transition period to implement important institutional changes, such as the replacement of the Senate with a regional chamber of representatives, will take an immense effort from Gabriel Boric’s government. Left-wing forces will need to unify to protect the process against the growing reactionary movements that have adopted violence as a means to create political disorder.

Still, the eyes of progressives across the world are looking at Chile with hope. The example that this new constitution could set for other democracies is both radical and unique. This would be the first constitution in the world that was written by a group with gender parity and indigenous representation, through a democratic process, and that contains explicit commitments to tackling the effects of climate change. Hope, once again, is the only sentiment that can finally bury Pinochet’s legacy and move Chile into a progressive future.