The Weight of Women’s Vote in the Chilean Plebiscite

“If approved, we’ll have the world’s first feminist Constitution.”

When I grow up I want to be free! Photo: “Agencia Uno”

The women and youth vote were decisive in Chile’s 2021 run-off election that gave the presidency to Gabriel Boric. Sixty-eight percent of young women voted for the current leader.

By Silvia Peña, Natalia Espinoza y Valentina Paredes (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – The “informal” campaign for Chile’s September 4 plebiscite for or against the newly drafted Constitution kicked off some time ago. However, the decisive battle is now approaching, and among the groups to be conquered are the youth of all genders and the women. Added together they total 10,371,551 votes – 69% of the electorate – that is now being fought over.

Different political sectors and social organization have recognized that two of the key forces in determining which option will prevail is that of women and the “undecided”. According to a study conducted by Pulso Ciudadano [Citizen Pulse] 30.6% of the population, equivalent to some 4.5 million people according to the most recent electoral rolls, are still unsure how they’ll vote. Of these, 60% are women from the lower middle classes and those in poverty. The reasons and sentiments that the undecided express are fear (36.5%) and uncertainty (74.9%).

Hillary Hiner, a professor from the Department of Social Sciences and History of the Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile, believes that the phenomenon seen in the run-off election that occurred just a few months ago will be repeated. This also seems likely because some of the movements that at the time closed ranks around Gabriel Boric participated in the drafting of the Constitutional text, including organizations that proposed popular initiatives. “Now, they’re going to defend their initiatives, and that gives them a double commitment,” she stated.

In that sense, it’s important to note that 64% of the women under 29 voted for the current president, while 54% of women from 30 – 55 did so. “That scenario shouldn’t change, because the project of a new Constitution was carried out by 77 women and 77 men for the first time in our history. There’s an egalitarian road map. And it’s open to having other women join in: the rural women who lack access to water, others seeking the right to heath care, to housing, not to mention the caregivers who are largely women.”

Women “appeared” in the Chilean Constitution very recently, in 1999. That year the phrase was added: “Men and women are equal before the law”. That remained the only mention, up until now. The proposal for a new Magna Carta speaks of “women, girls, and the sexual and gender diverse.” To many experts, this change is the fruit of the leadership of the organizations that arose with the 2019 social uprising, that laid the groundwork for the Constitutional Convention.

“Up until now, women have been little represented in the drafting of Constitutions in Chile. The texts themselves reflect that conservative, androcentric concentration, in their view of the relation between State, politics, citizenry and democracy,” expressed Hiner.

Concretely speaking, the new Constitution contains the word “woman” 13 times, mentions the concept of gender 46 times, and includes 12 mentions of diversity and dissidence. In contrast, the Constitution of the 1980s, still in force, has only that one mention to represent the “formal equality”, a concept these last years has proven to be insufficient.

Between Women

The social and feminist organizations point to women’s participation and the gender parity that existed in the process of drafting the new Constitution as a fundamental core that will cause women to lean towards voting to Approve. “Considering that the exercise of our citizenship has been in place for such a short time, and that never in the history of Chile have we participated in the elaboration of a constitution, it’s a tremendous leap that we’ve made as women, and as feminists in particular,” emphasized Priscila Gonzalez, a member of the National Coordination of the Chilean Network against Violence towards Women.

However, not all women are feminists, and there are other important needs to consider. According to an analysis of digital visibility on Twitter, done by Fundacion Interpreta, for El Mostrador, women’s conversations using the hashtag “Approval” center around the social aspects of the new Constitution.

In this context, they highlighted the messages calling on Chileans to leave behind “Pinochet’s Constitution” and to safeguard their social rights. They also noted a call to cast an informed vote, and not to fall for the fake news that has appeared lately.

The women who identify under the “Approve” tag and who share messages with feminist content, center their posts on the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights, the right to abortion, holistic sexual education and gender parity.

Journalist and analyst Catalina Rolle from Fundacion Interpreta expains: “we looked at users who identify as feminine and were posting under the hashtags Apruebo [“I approve”] or “Rechazo [“I reject”]. This analysis didn’t let us determine the voters’ intention but could determine their emphasis on certain topics.”

The conversations currently taking place among women who want to reject the new Carta Magna, center around the idea that the proposal seeks to destroy Chile. In addition, many of the comments are oriented towards criticizing and insulting the politicians, on the left as well as on the right, calling them “sell-outs” for supporting the new draft.

Fake News is the center of the “Reject” push on the social networks

According to the analysis from Fundación Interpreta, in the past months there’ve been three definitive moments when chatter about the major Constitutional themes increased. The first of them occurred on May 16, when the first draft of the Constitution was published. The second one was on June 22, after Senator Felipe Kast declared the new Constitution would allow abortion for pregnancies up to 9 months, which was utterly false. Finally, there was a peak on June 27, due to the use of the hashtag #atrevetechile [“dare to do it, Chile”] calling on people to vote “Reject”, since the new document “would accept undercover pedophilia,” another totally false affirmation.

The women calling for rejection talk about the supposed imposition of a “gender ideology”; they repeat the fake news about 9-month abortions; and claim that “being a woman” will be made invisible, because the proposed Constitution uses the concept “people who menstruate” to differentiate those biologically female from the masculine trans population.

In this context, diverse organizations of women and feminists have reacted rapidly to the fake news spread by more conservative sectors who lean towards Rejection. For example, the Permanent Assembly for the Legalization of Abortion, through its social networks, has created different publications explaining certain articles that make up the proposal for our new Foundational Charter.

These clarifications aren’t limited only to the gender-related norms, since the false information has been across the board. The group’s latest Twitter thread intended to combat fake news, for example, was on the concept of multi-nationalism.

Former presidential candidate and current senator Yasna Provoste has also noted the “Reject” supporters’ disinformation campaign. “Let’s be clear, the right wing’s plan for September 4 is an operation to pretty up the 80s Constitution, with a formula that they never used in 30 years, under the supposed promise that if the ‘Reject’ vote wins, there’ll be another Constitution anyway. I won’t be part of that,” she tweeted.

Mobilization to provide information

According to the Adolfo Ibañez University’s Laboratory for Surveys and Analysis (LEAS), more women than men are misinformed about the Constitutional process: 56% to 44%.  According to demographics, there’s a slight uptick in people 55 or more who are misinformed – with 37% of them displaying poor information, versus 30% of young people under 35.

“In truth, the majority of people aren’t receiving that much information in favor of or against the Constitutional draft. Obviously, that will also change when the campaign begins,” explained LEAS researcher Valentina Salvatierra.

Probing deeper into the information revealed in the laboratory’s surveys, they found that a large part of the misinformed people live outside the Santiago metropolitan area (61%). Those who already favor the “Approve” option tend more to be women (54%) than men (46%), in similar percentages to those who seem misinformed. With respect to the uncertainty that some surveys report and the fake news that has invaded the digital spaces, Valentina Salas, senior advisor on governability for the United Nations Development Program in Chile, stressed the fact that knowing the contents of the proposal is critical for carrying out the democratic exercise.

“It’s important to reinforce the fact that the mobilization of women or other groups must necessarily involve access to accurate information on the contents of the [Constitutional] proposal. It’s essential that the entire electorate have access to reliable information, in order to form their own opinions and thus make a decision about their vote.”

The feminist forces could prove decisive

Within this complex and diverse scenario, Natalia Morales, a researcher with the University of Chile’s Center for Human Rights, believes that the feminist forces will be a decisive element because, when women are more included in society and their topics form part of the public debate, there’s more involvement “and that could turn into a greater push for exercising their vote. In Chile, voting has been voluntary in the last few years, hence, it’s very important that women and those who are gender diverse feel that the topics that concern them are being considered, for them to have the will to go cast their ballots.”

In fact, the feminist movement and the LGBTQI community were very active during the protests and as a result were an important force in pushing the demand to write a new and more democratic Magna Carta. “We can see that the feminist movement is interested in seeing a Constitutional change and that has a lot of underlying reasons in terms of equity and inclusiveness,” Morales argued.

During the Constitutional Convention, one of their objectives was to encourage the active participation of individual citizens and different groups of academics. This was achieved via public hearings, and the presentation of what was called the “Iniciativa Populares de Normas”, essentially citizens’ suggestions for new norms, which – if they garnered enough signatures – were presented to the Constitutional Convention to be voted on. During these public events, there was broad participation from feminist organizations across the spectrum, who brought forth different cases.

This involvement had been seen since the original 2020 “Approval” vote in the plebiscite asking Chileans whether or not they wanted to initiate the process of creating a new Constitution. This has been analyzed by a coordinating group called Nada sin nosotras [“Nothing without us”] which brings together the Gender and Equity Observatory, Corporation Humans, and the Center for Women’s Studies. An analysis they published in October 2021 noted that there were major expectations regarding how the text of a new Constitution could have a positive impact on women’s rights.

Mariela Infante, who directs Corporacion Humana [“Corporation Human], specified that 54% of women reported said they had high expectations for this process. “The aspects (…) the women felt most important to be included in the text was that of equal pay, plus everything that has to do with violence, care, and sexual and reproductive rights.” Now, one year later, these aspects are, effectively, present in the final draft,” she affirmed.

The UN Development Program and the Telar platform published an analysis of the impact women’s presence had on the outcome of the voting in the Constitutional Convention. Gender parity was a key topic, within which different items were included in the final proposed Constitution.

Holistic sex education and the right to an Integral Care System are guarantees that without the gender balance in representation would probably have been rejected, according to Valentina Salas, the UNDP’s advisor to Chile. “These norms reflect demands that the feminist movement has been pushing forcefully in the last few years, so that it’s possible that subjects like that motivate a part of the feminine electorate to participate and make their decision about the plebiscite and the outcome of the Constitutional process,” Salas maintained.

The March 8 Feminist Coordinator group agreed, especially considering the historic role that the feminist organizations have had in the formulation of the norms that came out of the convention. “We women and different feminist groups were protagonists in this unprecedented milestone in which a democratic and equitable body was created, not only because of the participation of feminist representatives, but also in the Iniciativas Populares de Norma which were the expression of long struggles and long-suppressed needs,” the group declared.

The organization explained that the participation and the incorporated topics mark the road to follow for women’s groups and their coordination during the campaign process. “Bringing to fruition the victory of the “Approve” vote is a task we must take on: in flyers, in fairs, by holding citizen town halls and a forming a leadership structure, and by organizing assemblies and gatherings for feminists and the gender diverse, all to promote the Approve vote.”

The Chilean Network against Violence towards Women stressed that in the campaign, their organization didn’t only set their goals on a majority voting to Approve, but they also want the margin of victory to be conclusive. Based on that objective, in the context of the organization’s campaign: “Take care! Machismo kills”, they’re launching a new poster to promote approving the Constitutional draft.

“We women are going to vote massively on September 4, with our preference to Approve, as much for questions of participation as for the guarantees that the text of the new Constitution provides us with,” stated Priscila Gonzalez.   

August is key

The different experts and organizations concur that a victory for the Approve vote will be a historic event, nationally and even internationally for women and feminists. Regarding the challenges, they highlight two of them:

  1. During this campaign period the “text of the document and its real reach must be made known, and the fact that the Constitutional Delegates did a good job in the short time they had, and with scarce resources.”
  2. Later, if the Approve vote wins over the Reject vote, “the implementation of all those measures and laws will be complex.”

Those in the March 8 Coordinating body agree on the great difficulty there may be in implementing the norms. However, they stress the opportunity it provides. “This Constitution is the legal umbrella that will allow us to establish our basic rights, the ones we’ve spent decades fighting for. It’s a historic opportunity and signifies a new way of life for all of us.”

Considering all the issues that are at play in this proposed Magna Carta, it’s clear that the Approve option has great strengths, but also that it must face major challenges. With respect to this, Maria Teresa Rojas, a professor at the Alberto Hurtado University, offers a criticism of the poor practices in the field of politics.

“Why don’t we move ahead? Why don’t we warn that the risks (of fake news, disinformation, alarmism) always exist, and mount territorial campaigns to explain very clearly what the Constitutional text says? Deliberate lies will always exist. It’s a fact of politics, and in addition, those who exercise [these lies] have more power to transmit that information. We mustn’t be naïve in thinking: ‘Oh, we never imagined this.’”

She concludes by adding that civil society has a very important role to play. “For one thing, we must expect the media to take a broad view, to reflect the different positions with truth, transparency, and without caricaturing them. But they’re not the only ones. Think, for example, of the teachers. I’m anxious to see educators play a role in divulging, demonstrating, conversing, and opening up these topics, at the university level and that of higher education as well as in the schools. The young people who are still studying also have the right to participate in this conversation and to know what it’s about.”

To the expert, the feminist movement has been decisive within all these central concepts that the proposal for the new Constitutional draft entails. If approved this would be the first feminist Constitution in the history of the world, not just Chile. It speaks to the transcendental cultural and political impact of the feminist movement in Chile.

Although every day what we see are major personalities, especially men, announcing their voting intentions, presenting plans from A to Z and it would seem like the Refuse vote is in the lead, at least in communications, Professor Hiner of the UDP’s Department of Social Science and History argues that it’s the moment to read, study the text, get to know it and become informed. “There are lines outside the bookstores to buy the document; the organizations are reading it but will soon be going out on the streets to discuss it door to door. The atmosphere will be very similar to the run-off election. It’ll be full of people speaking about the contents. That’s already happening among the academic circles in the university, among the students, the women. I believe that in August there’ll be a great deployment of those seeking to reach the undecided and get the information to those who need it,” she concluded.

We’ll see how August goes.


Read more from Chile here on Havana Times.