The Message of Chile’s Reject Vote on the Draft Constitution

Patricio Fernandez, during the Gabo Festival in Medellin, Colombia. Photo: Gabo Foundation

The reasons the Constitutional Convention lost people’s trust, the meaning of this political defeat for President Boric, and the return to a new Constitutional debate in Chile

By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Chile’s plebiscite to Approve or Reject the proposed Constitution ended in a sweeping victory for the Reject vote, with a margin of more than 24 percent between that option and the Approve vote. This represents a major political defeat for President Gabriel Boric, but it doesn’t mean that “Pinochet has been revived,” as Colombian President Gustavo Petro tweeted – a reaction that was either very ignorant or simply out of touch with the Chilean political situation. “Eighty percent of Chileans put an end to Pinochet’s Constitution,” Patricio Fernandez reminds us. Fernandez, an independent Constitutional Convention delegate who was elected after Chile’s 2019 social uprising, was an active backer of the Approve vote. Now, after its defeat, he insists that the Chilean debate is “about the future”.

Chilean writer and journalist, founder of the online satiric publication “The Clinic”, Patricio Fernandez stressed the “discredited Convention” and the “loss of confidence that the high-flying debates in the Convention generated.” He sees this as a factor in the massive outpouring of support for the Reject option, even among the indigenous peoples that were so resoundingly favored in the text of the new Constitution.

In an interview broadcast September 8, on the online television news program Esta Semana, Fernandez described the new stage that now continues in the political laboratory that is today’s Chile. This time around, he believes, the political parties in the Chilean Congress and Senate will play a more leading role in “the search for a balance between change and stability. Clearly, the next Constitutional proposal will be less of a trail blazer than this one [the defeated proposal],” he predicted.

This past Sunday (September 4) nearly 62% of Chileans voted to reject the proposal for a new Constitution that included deep changes. Just two years ago, however, 78% of Chileans voted to change the Constitution inherited from the years of the Pinochet dictatorship, although in reality it had undergone several reforms, including in 2005.  Who won in Chile last Sunday? What message did the electorate send?

Effectively, [in 2020] 80% of Chileans conclusively rejected, put an end to, Pinochet’s Constitution. Because of that, I’d say that this great failure of the Convention doesn’t imply a return to, or the permanence, or the consolidation of Pinochet’s Constitution. That wasn’t the message, for one thing, in contradiction to the view of Colombian President [Gustavo] Petro, who posted a very unhappy declaration about the vote on Twitter [indicating that Pinochet was being revived].

What happened? First of all, I believe that in Chile we’re seeking to balance the aspirations for change against the yearning for stability, our desires for transformations and improvements against the awareness that some could end up losing.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were elected in an atmosphere of social uprising. In 2019, Chile exploded in a series of mobilizations with a very violent scope. They were very intense, and marked a crisis in the institutional order like nothing Chile had experienced since the time of the (1973) Coup d’etat. This Convention was elected in that climate – a climate of great turmoil, with intensely forceful demands for transformation. It also was a time of very strong rupture with the political parties, meaning that 104 of the 155 delegates elected to the convention were independents. The loudest, I’d say, the most vociferous of those who came to the Convention had a very negative discourse – not only against the right, but also against the parties that had held power during the last decades, when we had the [Center-right, Center-left] Concertation governments. They came [to the Convention] with a lot of resentment, with more energy for confrontation than a will to construct a common space.

In general, since the norms and articles that resulted needed the approval of two-thirds of the convention, these were well focused and not so radical. But the image of the Convention lost credibility; it was seen as a Convention that was sometimes on the bizarre side, with some unusual participants, who were the focus of perplexing news. There were delegates who arrived at the convention in costume, and some very obstreperous and extremist groups proposed norms that were completely outside common sense. Even though [these proposals] weren’t accepted, they remained in the air.

So, when it came time [to campaign], this mistrust and distance from the citizens that the Convention’s image had accrued ended up helping those who favored the Reject option to convince people – or at least find fertile ground for convincing them – that the norms established in the final document were delirious, or irresponsible, or baseless. If a different level of trust and a different political atmosphere had been constructed in the Constitution, people’s reaction to those same norms might have looked very different. 

The Reject vote was overwhelming, with more than 24 percentage points of difference across all regions of Chile, even Santiago. What’s the underlying cause? You mentioned the population’s loss of trust in the Constitutional Convention. In speaking about the Reject vote, how much was influenced by opposition to some of the proposed content, which involved a complete shift in parameters, such as gender parity, the rights of indigenous people, the multi-national state and ecological priorities, for example?

Those points were precisely some of the most basic. However, we had lost the trust of a broad percentage of the population. The defeat wasn’t only the 62% – the Approve vote only won a majority in eight districts with over 300 voters. In the working class sectors, it lost by even greater margins than in the affluent sectors. This is a very strong blow to the forces of change in Chile. It’s a very harsh signal.

[In this vote] the rights of prisoners were established, and for the first time the prisoners were invited to vote. Yet, in seven of the eight penitentiaries, the Approve option lost, and the Reject option won. In the indigenous territories – the Mapuche as well as the Aymara districts – the Reject option won by a very substantial margin. In other words, the reality greatly contradicted a large part of the “self-righteous” convictions that emanated from sectors of the Convention. That was also a big surprise for me. Those sectors, those causes, that seemed so well represented by the Convention weren’t approved and defended by those for whom they were supposedly enacted. That made a great impression on me.

Does this mean a return to the Constitution of 1980? No. It’s going to mean a new search for something like a balance between change and stability. Doubtless the new proposal will be less of a trailblazer than this one.

Someone, I think it was in the New York Times, wrote a phrase that seems to me very true. They noted that the most Conservative country in Latin America was writing the most progressive Constitution in the world. So, apparently, in the end, that didn’t work out at all.

More than implying a deep rejection of what the articles postulated, the fact that they were read and interpreted with great mistrust was due to the way the Convention had discredited itself. Many of its declarations and public appearances were greatly distant from the common sense of the citizens.

How did the voters position themselves with respect to President Boric and his new government? Boric associated his own credibility, his mandate, with the results of this Constitutional Convention. There are also a series of accumulated problems in Chile, which obviously haven’t been resolved during Boric’s short term in office. Was this a vote of sanction for the president as well?

When there’s a plebiscite, no matter if it’s asking you if you like the stars, or if you’d rather have cake, the truth is it’s also a plebiscite on the government. In this case, that’s even more directly true, because the government put its credibility on the line in favor of the Approve vote. In addition, Gabriel Boric is one of the parents of this entire Constitutional process. Without his signature on the move to carry out the original agreement, this whole process wouldn’t have flowed. He didn’t only give his explicit backing, with the support of the government institutions, but I’d say it was part of the cultural fabric of his government. This is a new generation that’s come to power, accompanied by new ideas for a new discussion of our great common accords.

The greatest victim, and no doubt the person who was saddest, most disappointed, and hardest hit by this result, is President Boric. Just after him, are us, the Convention delegates that pushed for the Approve vote. However, the one in first place is President Boric’s government. In fact, just yesterday he made profound changes to his cabinet. Some say that the government begins now, because in some way Boric now has to retune his initial proposals a great deal, by expanding, putting a lot more emphasis on democratic socialism forces that emerged most strongly from the Concertation [a coalition of center right-left parties in Chile, from 1988-2013] and inherited it’s perspective.

In effect, yesterday President Boric brought into his government six important figures from that Concertation and from the democratic transition starting 1990. I believe this signifies a kind of pivot towards the center of his coalition. Might this generate tensions inside his own government, and in his alliance with the Communist party?

I’m fairly sure that there inside [the government] right now, knives are being drawn on all sides. I don’t have the least doubt of that. Certainly, they’re living through moments of extremely intense tensions. The president is demonstrating with this his democratic vocation, and his comprehension that governing involves more than moving forward with his own wishes and his own impulses. He has called for and broadened the search for forces within his government, given the very weak state that the Constitutional plebiscite left them in. In the end, what he did amounts to an act of great acceptance.

A moment ago, you said that the Colombian president’s phrase that Pinochet had revived has no echo in the Chile of today. How do you think the Chilean right are reading the success of the Reject vote?

At this stage in the game, you clearly must use the plural when speaking of the Chilean right, as well as the Chilean left – there are rights and there are lefts. A part of the right would like to see in this the resurrection of the Constitution of 1980: an affirmation that there’s no need for a new Constitution, and that all that went before was a mistake. That’s the world of the Republicans, probably part of the UDI as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they yelled “Long live Chile and Pinochet!” that day, as they yelled for such a long time in the history of this country, to the pain of many. But it would be unfair to say that these represent the entire right-wing, and more unfair yet to say that’s the view today, that’s the meaning of the Reject vote.

You’re listening to a person who was an advocate for the Approve vote, and who worked arduously for it. However, I feel that the latter view would be falsifying the story. I know people who were tortured, spent years as political prisoners, who had suffered exile, yet who voted to Reject. This is rather a discussion about the future, about forging new general agreements for a new society. It’s not a discussion about a dictator whose time in government ended more than 30 years ago. That’s unfair. And to avoid having my words spark confusion – the person telling you this is someone who would have voted for [Gustavo] Petro.

Let’s talk about next steps. What role do the Chilean Congress and Senate play in advancing a new Constitutional proposal? Will they take the reformed 2005 Constitution as their starting point, or begin with the defeated proposal of the Constitutional Convention? Where does Chile begin now, in order to have a new Constitution?

Everything you’re asking is up in the air at this moment. I can’t answer any of your questions with any certainty because nothing has been signed and sealed yet. What I can answer is where I see the conversations going, and those have advanced pretty far in the direction of citizens electing a new Constitutional Convention, this time without the same characteristics, of course.

The Convention I participated in as one of the 155 delegates, has a number of characteristics that were greatly influenced by the social explosion: among them was [gender] parity, which I believe won’t end  with the next Constitutional Convention. Others were the assigning of seats for the participation of the original peoples, and I believe this, too, will also be maintained, but on a much lesser scale and with other criteria. In terms of another aspect – the participation of lists of independent delegates – I see the political world very little disposed towards repeating that experience.

What will be different now, is that [the process] will be rooted in Congress, who will decide how this process will continue. I hope and desire that they don’t forget where we’ve come from, and why the things that have happened, have happened. Because you can already note in the politicians something like the self-satisfaction of saying: “That distrust of us is over. Once more, we’ll be the glittering stars, desired and loved by the population. Everything that happened before was foolishness, due to our absence.” I believe that would be a colossal error. Because during the social uprising, only 2% of Chileans said they felt represented by some political party. There was a great break in trust with them. Today, the general opinion of Congress is extremely low, lower than that of the Constitutional Convention.

I think we must seek an understanding of the need for better governance of the next Convention that will come. I do hope they find the strategies and paths, that they don’t throw away these other occurrences, but take them into account with concern for improving its functioning.

Will they begin with a foundation from one of the previous texts? We don’t know. They could use this rejected text. They could also use a proposal that was made during [Michelle] Bachelet’s government. They could put both together and see how to take off from there. We don’t know.

In this moment, Chile practically goes back to being a kind of political laboratory. We don’t know what the result of that change will be. However, one thing is clear: the political parties in Congress are resuming an active role. What’s the impact of this, in relation to the aspirations of the social uprising and the movement of independents that – as you said before – predominated in this past Constitutional Convention? Have you now been displaced, or are you part of a new Chilean political scenario?

I hope the political world has the clarity to understand that we’re in the middle of a process. I myself have perceived it this way for a while now. I was already involved as a Constitutional delegate when it became very evident to me, and I insisted greatly that we’re in a process that wasn’t going to end with either an Approve or a Reject win and that also hadn’t begun with the election of the Convention delegates.

I participated in the Citizen’s Council of Observers in the second term of Michelle Bachelet (2014-2018), a kind of citizen’s dialogue, which invited the population to discuss a new Constitution. The political world in general, not only the Right, boycotted that invitation from Michelle Bachelet, and the Constitutional proposal that came out of it was left in a drawer. Then came the government of Sebastian Piñera, and there was no more talk of the Constitution. He even declared once that we were an oasis in Latin America, and one week later came the largest social explosion that we’ve had for many decades.

The laboratory that is Chile must learn to recognize that it’s all part of a process. One that I admire, frankly, even now, after having experienced a personal fiasco, in the sense that I gave the best of myself so that this proposal would be approved. But I believe that we’re seeking a way to balance the forces: the forces of change with the conservative and protective forces; the yearning for improvement with the recognition of the improvements we’ve already had; the new generations and the huge new impulses of identity, that push to take their place with certain traditions; inherited beliefs that don’t mean anything; the great national unity with the existence of different cultural realities within it, that deserve recognition; the women that have forced their way into the institutional traditions that persist.

All this, I believe, is a search we’re immersed in, and that is going to take us more time. I want to believe that we’re going to arrive at a good result, for the good of Chile, but not only of Chile, so that this laboratory has as an outcome a potion that’s not explosive, but that makes things better.

How would you combine this process with the urgencies of the moment, the day-by-day short-term needs: the crisis of security that Chile is facing; the demands related to economic and social issues that the government of Gabriel Boric must face, parallel to resolving this crisis of the new Constitution?

Gabriel Boric, has already given Parliament the follow-up to the Constitutional process. I think that one of his great challenges is going to be encapsulating this process in some way, so it can continue its course, precisely in order to respond to those urgent matters you refer to.

The government mustn’t fade. It can’t disappear from the scene but must persevere with this topic that is stretching out. One of my great concerns is just that – the permanent delaying of the matter of the Constitutional Convention, which could stretch out until the end of this government, keeping them from forcefully taking on topics like the ones you’re talking about. A lot will depend on the President’s leadership and his skill in channeling this. We’ll see how he does.

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One thought on “The Message of Chile’s Reject Vote on the Draft Constitution

  • Very good explanations helps others outside Chile understand.

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