The Defeat Of The Constitution

A Tragedy for the Chilean Left

Richard Seymour

The resounding defeat of the campaign to introduce a new, post-Pinochet constitution in Chile is a tragedy for the Left.

The draft constitution would have redefined the Chilean state as "a social and democratic state of law" that is "plurinational, intercultural, regional, and ecological. It is constituted as a solidary republic." That would have provided the basis for an expansive welfare state, ecological rights, sexual rights and indigenous rights, repudiating decades of constitutional neoliberalism.

The polls suggested the rejectionists would win, but the margin, with 62% voting against the constitution, was bigger than anticipated. Most difficult to swallow will be that the rejection was strongest among lower income and indigenous communities. There was more support for the constitution in the "upper class" (who still rejected it by about 60.5%) than among any other demographic. The margin of rejection reached 45% in the communes with the highest proportion of indigenous voters.

There will be better analyses coming, and there is a lot that appears obscure for the moment. For now, these are the main factors worth drawing attention to and learning from:

First, there is a pattern of political realignment and reconsolidation of the old oligarchy in which the far-right Kast's ascendancy has been crucial. The Left had benefited from the discombobulation of the elites during Piñera's reign, but Kast was able to channel a backlash against the movements on nationalist, racist and law-and-order grounds. On that basis, he won the first round of the presidential election before losing to Boric. Although Kast was careful not to publicise his support for rejection, realising that this would polarise the issue in a way that would potentially strengthen the Left, his Republican Party played a key role in political mobilising, fund-raising and disinformation.

A crucial moment in the rejectionist campaign was the claim, made on 31st March on the front page of Las ÚltimasNoticias by convention delegate and conservative economist Bernardo Fontaine, that the draft constitution would expropriate workers' pension funds. This, as far as I can tell, was straightforward disinformation. But it was skilfully exploited, and it turned the tide in favour of rejection. There began a months-long campaign using both national media and social media accounts – with $116.7m spent on Facebook and Instagram pages over two months – suggesting that the convention was going to appropriate privately owned homes, and put the largely privatised healthcare system at risk. This fed into narratives that the Convention had abandoned "what we asked for". Conservative fear of pension reforms and a national healthcare system formed the basis of a lot of opposition to the draft constitution. And 'approve' never regained its lead.

Second, there is the role of the vocal and disproportionately publicised "centre-left for rejection" platform, representing elements of the old concertación. On the basis of a cynical slogan, “Rechazo con amor” (I reject with love), they embraced and fought for a 'Plan B' scenario enjoined by the conservative parties such as the UDI (Independent Democratic Union, the Pinochetist right) and RN (National Renewal, part of the Piñera coalition). In 'Plan B', if the draft constitution was rejected, parliamentary forces would negotiate a more moderate constitutional reform. The Right would have a stronger hand, and its starting point in negotiations would be continuity with the 1980 Pinochetist constitution. That would severely limit the social and democratic rights that could be obtained. The centre-left rejectionists were able to get their spokes-people on national media in a manner far outweighing their depth of social or even electoral support. This made rejection a 'safer' option for voters who would otherwise reject the Right.

Third, there is the role of the Boric government, which may have become an impediment to the campaign's success. Boric formally took office in March, with a net approval rating of over 20%. Within weeks it had fallen to -20%. Why? Boric was in a weak position from the beginning. He had won, in part, by tempering his demands and reaching out to the centre. His party, Convergencia Social, has no seats in the Senate and has only ten in the lower house. He was dependent on less radical coalition allies. He was thus unable to do much about soaring inflation and sluggish growth. The Constitutional Convention was working until the beginning of July, meaning campaigning was paused until there was a document to campaign for. And since support for the constitution became strongly correlated with support for the government, this strengthened the hand of the centre-left-to-far-right coalition.

By mid-July, the Boric administration was deeply worried about the polling trends, and began to tout its own 'Plan B'. In the event of rejection, a new convention should be elected to modify or reformed the proposed constitution. One result of this was that, when it came to the vote, there were in practice four different options: "approve, approve to reform, reject and reject to renew. Thus, in one of the latest public surveys before the plebiscite, carried out by Cadem, 17% of respondents declared themselves in favour of rejecting, 35% of rejecting to renew, 32% of approving to reform and only 12% of approving and applying the new text as it came out of the Convention". A strong lead for approve had turned into a confused smorgasbord, in which just over ten percent of voters would declare themselves unambiguously for the constitution.

Finally, there is some criticism of the Constitutional Convention itself. According to the critique offered by Ukamau, the urban social movement fighting for decent housing, the Convention lost touch with the core concerns of the 2019 social uprising, focusing more on "international law" and "specific transversalised claims" than the concerns of "large working majorities". The Convention, on this account, became insular, got ahead of themselves, and allowed the centre and right to take the initiative.

This is a decisive moment in a long cycle of social struggles, constitutional and electoral campaigns in which the Chilean Left has made significant gains, but has now experienced a major setback. This defeat may not kill off a new constitution, but anything that emerges now will be far weaker and more safeguarded against democratic and social gains by the popular majority. The Boric government, elected last November after defeating the far-right Kast campaign by a surprisingly large margin, is now much weaker.

In Chile, where the 1980 constitution was nothing less than a neoliberal iron cage, it could not be more obvious. So, this result is a tragedy, for everyone who wants a socialist way out of the crisis.

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Vol 55, No. 27, Jan 1 - 7, 2023