Chile and the Day the Approve Vote Didn’t Happen

On the night of September 4th

By Andres Kogan Valderrama

HAVANA TIMES – The overwhelming September 4th victory of the Reject option over the vote to approve the Constitution proposed by the Constitutional Convention in Chile has undoubtedly marked a before and after in the country’s history. Those of us who bet on a more just Chile, one that recognizes our diversity, will never forget this political and cultural defeat.

This historic vote in Chile took place with the participation of 85.81% of the electorate, a total greater than any other in the past. The huge difference between the two options – 61.86% voted to Reject, while only 38.14% voted to Approve – wasn’t only an immense triumph for the rightist sectors of the country, but also demonstrated how profoundly individualistic, conservative, fearful and full of prejudices Chilean society still is, even though I believed and desired the opposite.

Apparently, many of us viewed things very naively. We believed that the social explosion of 2019 and the Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution that followed, plus the immense triumph of the 2020 vote to approve the drafting of a new constitution, indicated that Chileans had reached levels of political awareness so great that the process which followed would be irreversible. We were convinced that not even the big business groups could slow it down.

Unfortunately, we were wrong, and now, we find ourselves at a moment of great weakness and uncertainty. In addition, this historic defeat will doubtless be viewed with great frustration, sorrow and discouragement by many sectors, something that puts us into the worst possible scenario.

While the causes of this defeat go far beyond the mistakes of the Approve camp during this entire constitutional process, it seems important to me to outline some of them, as a way of generating some lessons for the future. The plebiscite could have had a much better result, despite the enormous fake news and misinformation campaign the Reject campaign waged through the great concentrated media outlets.

We wrote this great Constitutional text for Chile in a festive mood, with excessive confidence on the part of many Constitutional Convention delegates from the social movements. There were also inconsistencies among the political parties that backed the Approve vote, and fearfulness on the government side.

In the case of the Convention delegates from the social movements, many committed the sin of arrogance. They acted as if winning a 2/3 majority vote for their proposed articles from the Constitutional Convention body was enough, ignoring the fact they’d eventually face a public plebiscite. Added to this was an excess of confidence on the part of many of them, manifested in attitudes that were little open to dialogue.

They weren’t capable of seeing that an entire country was watching their declarations and actions. This was obviously going to be used later to magnify any errors or stupidities committed within the Convention, as indeed the large media outlets did.

They quickly forgot that only 41% of the electorate – 51% of those registered – participated in the 2021 vote for the Constitutional delegates. This left an immense quantity of people who weren’t part of this process, but who largely turned out to vote during the September 4th final plebiscite. [Note: the vote for the Delegates was optional, but in the final plebiscite, voting was mandatory].

In terms of the political parties who backed the Approve vote, they failed to understand how little legitimacy they have in the eyes of Chilean voters. Further, they were unable to articulate their positions in favor of a new Carta Magna in an orderly way; their declarations revealed important differences between those on one side, who were content with the Constitutional text, and others that weren’t.

In my view, that inconsistency was clearly reflected in the so-called United for Approval of the New Constitution Agreement. This was supposed to generate more certainty, via a joint commitment to make certain changes in the new Constitution, if it were approved. In practice, though, this idea reflected a kind of capitulation to the Reject position, by assuming that the new Constitutional text contained important errors and thus was bad.

In terms of the government, it appeared very fearful of being accused of electoral interventionism during the months of the Constitutional Convention and the campaign. It did very little to inform about the Constitutional Convention process, completely neglecting the role the State channel television could have played in terms of offering different educational contents to bring the citizens closer to what we, as a country, were experiencing.

Finally, with respect to the campaign spots for the Approve vote that were broadcast on the nightly television slot, there seemed to be complete disorganization between the different coordinating groups. Their disparate efforts culminated in a confused and fragmented message that lacked a call for the unity of Chileans. Clearly, their combined message failed to reach the indecisive, much less the new voters.

In synthesis, the historic defeat last September 4 – while it certainly reflects a deep conservatism and individualism within Chilean society that many of us refused to see during this whole time – is also the result of costly mistakes we made. We must assume responsibility for these errors and try to learn from them, as we confront the new scenarios that are coming in the near future. We’ll have to face these challenges keeping our heads and hopes held high.

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