Chile’s ‘social explosion’ lights a fuse under its constitution

Chile’s ‘social explosion’ lights a fuse under its constitution

Voters have opened way for reforms to system of government in wake of 2019 protests

Chile could be on the verge of profound changes to its system of government after centrist candidates failed to prevent radicals and independents winning a majority of seats on a new body to rewrite the country’s constitution.

The recent constitutional assembly elections confounded analysts. Some see the results as evidence that the anti-establishment sentiment that led to violent protests in 2019 could have a much broader impact than expected, laying bare widespread discontent with Chile’s traditional elite.

The elections were “the institutionalisation of the 2019 social explosion, which has migrated to the political, institutional scene”, according to Eugenio Tironi, a sociologist. He said the results revealed a much more fragmented and diverse country than Chile’s traditional elite had realised.

Held at the same time as gubernatorial, mayoral and municipal council elections, the poll this month produced a more radical and fragmented constitutional body than many had predicted. Analysts say it is likely to lead to greater state spending on health, education and pensions. 

Some warn that could spell the end of Chile’s pro-market economic model, which delivered more than three decades of uninterrupted growth. Chile’s stock market tumbled 10 per cent last week, while the peso fell about 2 per cent against the dollar.

“The vote is likely to mark a shift towards higher state social welfare provision . . . That’s likely to entail higher government spending and, probably, larger budget deficits and further rises in the public debt-to-GDP ratio,” according to Capital Economics. It noted that recent policy moves such as repeated withdrawals from private pension funds suggest that is already happening.

President Sebastián Piñera’s centre-right coalition failed by a wide margin to secure enough seats in the assembly needed to veto radical reforms. Meanwhile, anti-establishment independent candidates outperformed strongly, laying bare widespread discontent with Chile’s traditional elite.

The ruling rightwing coalition gained 24 per cent of the seats in the constitutional assembly — far below the at least 33 per cent it was expecting to receive. The centre-left coalition that has governed the country for most of the past three decades won just 16 per cent, underlining its spectacular collapse since Piñera returned to power. 

Meanwhile, a grouping of newly formed radical leftwing parties, together with the communist party, secured 18 per cent, allowing them to claim to be the main force of the Chilean left. Independent candidates swept up the remaining 42 per cent of the vote.

Many of the delegates on the new body are academics, social and community leaders, and environmental activists. There was a clear preference among voters for fresh faces with no links to the political establishment to write Chile’s new constitution. That document will replace the existing charter drawn up during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which is widely regarded as illegitimate.

“[The recent elections] represent the culmination of a longer-term process of political alienation and de-alignment, or realignment, that has been under way for at least 15 years,” said Jenny Pribble, a political scientist at the University of Richmond.

She added that Chile’s party system is perceived by many as being deaf to the demands of its citizens and incapable of addressing the country’s high levels of inequality, which along with inadequate pensions and public services triggered the 2019 protests.

The large number of independents, who obey no political leaders, means that “reaching agreements is going to be a very arduous process”, said Tironi.

But even though the right failed to secure a third of seats that would allow it to veto proposals, no group will enjoy such power, ensuring an unpredictable and unstable process. “There are going to be many thirds — groups will form depending on the issue,” he added.

Experts predict that the new charter will decentralise power in Chile, creating a less presidential system, while issues associated with the environment and gender are likely to be given far more importance. The issue of central bank independence — which the right hoped to be able to control with its veto — hangs in the balance.

Another key feature of the recent elections was the low turnout, with almost 60 per cent of voters staying at home. That has further thrown into doubt the outcome of presidential elections later this year.

According to Marta Lagos, a Chilean pollster, at least 2m people who voted for the centre in the past seven presidential elections did not bother voting. “It is most likely that those people will come back, so the result of the presidential election could be completely different,” she said.

Lagos said the far left coalition that dominated in the recent election decided to prevent the centre-left coalition from running in the same primary elections this week.

However, the 1.3m votes it received in the recent elections are a far cry from the roughly 3.5m votes that have traditionally been needed to win the presidency, she said. That means that the Chilean left will enter the presidential race divided — just as it did in the last elections, ultimately helping Piñera to win.

“There’s an obvious majority on the left, but [it] is probably going to be unable to produce [just] one candidate that can win the presidential elections,” she said, pointing out that almost 70 per cent of Chileans say that they do not want the ruling coalition to stay in power.

“This government has failed, with the lowest approval rating in the history of Chile, and yet it may win the presidency . . . How stupid can you get?” es un sitio web oficial del Gobierno Argentino