New Constitution and Participatory Democracy in Chile

By Andres Kogan Valderrama

HAVANA TIMES – Reviewing both the work carried out by the Constitutional Convention and the draft presented, it is impossible not to wonder how participatory this constituent process has been  — a process which finds Chile at an unprecedented political moment, and which will set the path of the country for decades to come.

At first sight, as far as its origin is concerned, the democratic legitimacy of this constituent process is quite evident, much more so than other political processes of constitutional change in Chile, when small groups of jurists or experts, supported by authoritarian governments, hammered out new constitutions in an undemocratic process (1833, 1925 and 1980).

With regard to the composition of the Constitutional Convention, it is also noteworthy to acknowledge the presence of seats reserved for indigenous peoples, the attention to gender parity and the presence of different independent groups, which makes it a space of truly pluralistic participation.

Regarding participatory mechanisms for the Constitutional Convention, different steps were taken to ensure that more citizens were part of this new body, always highlighting the initiatives of constitutional rule, self-convened meetings, mandatory public hearings, national days of deliberation, deliberative forums, community councils, indigenous consultation, and an intermediate plebiscite.

Consequently, it becomes undeniable how participatory and diverse the work of the Convention has been, focused on the construction of a participatory democracy, which has been historically denied in Chile by sectors that never believed in the people they claim to represent. I see the popular law and law repeal initiatives, regional direct democracy mechanisms, regional and community plebiscites, public hearings, popular referenda on constitutional reform and the total replacement of the constitution through a constituent assembly.

This new constitution, if approved on September 4th, will provide us with real tools for citizen participation. It will allow us to become part of the conversation and of future decision-making on different issues that we consider important , including health, education, the climate crisis, decentralization, interculturality and the country’s economic model, among others.

In addition, they are democratic tools enshrined in constitutions throughout the world, including the popular initiative law. Chile is practically the only country in the region without it, revealing the authoritarian and undemocratic nature of the charters that have been imposed to date (3).

Given this, it becomes quite curious that those who criticize the ongoing process, led by the Constitutional Convention all these months, for supposedly being a non-dialoguing body, conveniently forget the international experience and all the mechanisms regarding participation embedded in the constitutional draft. Apparently, we have been badly accustomed in Chile to this lack of participation, as we are part of a market-based, low-intensity democracy, subordinated to large economic groups, which have not had any meaningful citizen participation.

For this reason, it is critical that the new constitution is approved on September 4, since it will allow us to leave behind this minimal State that only involves a few and make way for a new State (based on law and parity, with a regional, multinational and ecological vision), open to a participatory democracy that decentralizes power and bases policies in the citizenry.

Not seeing it that way is to continue to mistrust Chilean society, due to its supposed lack of ability, as if a group of enlightened people are the only ones who should always decide everything – a process which has proved completely insufficient for the huge challenges we face as a country.

Chile has a historic opportunity with the new constitution.  Wasting or rejecting that opportunity will close the possibility of building a country for all of us and opening a new scenario, which will allow certain sectors political and economic actors to embrace the most participatory political process we have ever had as a country.

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times