The Economist has published a leader encouraging Chileans to ‘reject the new draft constitution’. In the article, the British outlet calls the draft a ‘confusing mess’, ‘full of woolly language’ and ‘absurdly long’. By qualifying the draft as too progressive, the piece alluded to common culture war themes.
It seems that the Economist’s inability to cope with the word ‘gender’, which occurs thirty-six times in the draft, led them to misunderstand the substance of the document. They misrepresent the process, the content, and frankly, the purpose of a constitution, which is distinct from legislation which—later—the legislative power will decide in Congress. But let’s start from the beginning.
Chile’s draft constitution is the product of two years of democratic process, the first time in Chile’s history that a constitution has been written by its people rather than a political, economic, or military elite. Amid the social revolt of 2019, political parties came together in the ‘November 15 agreement’ or ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’, which decided to trigger the process of writing a new constitution.
The agreement established that the process should take the form of a Constitutional Convention approved democratically via referendum, indicating that the Convention must have gender parity, reserved seats for indigenous groups, and include independent lists (candidates from outside political parties). The November 15 agreement established that, should the writing of the new Constitution be democratically approved, the draft should also be agreed upon via a referendum, which is set to take place on 4 September this year.
The agreement became law in December 2019, allowing the legislative system to initiate the process we have seen take place so far. Although the political tumult was high in 2019, the agreement convened one of the social demands of the revolt—namely, to break with the dictatorial past nestled in the 1980s constitution.
In October 2020, 79 percent of voters decided to approve the writing of a new constitution through a Constitutional Convention, with a turnout of 51 percent. This trigged the election campaigns for members of the Convention that were also democratically elected in May 2021. The outcome resulted in a majority progressive composition of members with diverse backgrounds. From the traditional centre left, such as the Socialist Party, to independent social movements, a total of 155 members—78 men and 79 women, including 17 members of indigenous groups—were elected to the Convention.
They committed to writing the new draft, and also to withdraw themselves from any publicly elected position for the two years after the completion of the process. The demographic composition of the Convention was a direct reflection of that of the country, demonstrating again the democratic nature of the process that included a diverse group of Chileans who rarely participated in shaping their own country. Feminists from different political backgrounds, for example, became the majority in the Convention, showing the direct link between the rise of the feminist movement in 2018 and the political transformations that have recently taken place in the country.
The process that has taken place has been defined by democratic and collective decisions that give transparency and legitimacy to the constitution’s draft. Although the convention was mostly composed of progressive political parties and alliances, as well as left-wing organisations and social movements, this occurred by neither chance nor imposition, as the Economist seems to imply. Rather, elected members campaigned with the same capacity as right-wing and centrist candidates who, although in a minority, are still represented in the Convention.
The inability of traditional neoliberal and conservative groups and political parties to persuade the electorate is not the fault of progressives, but rather a consequence of decades of political inefficiency and detachment from the reality faced by the majority of Chilean people. Their political commitment to changing the country through ‘reforms’ has not matched the intentions of the majority of the people to ‘refound Chile’—a sentiment which clearly emerged from the social revolt in 2019.
The work within the Convention since its composition in July 2021 was entirely independent of other political spheres, including the government, parliament, and political parties. The Convention organised thematic commissions and created their rulebook. All discussions were made public and streamed live, again expanding the avenues of democratic engagement.
However, the most interesting feature of the process was the incorporation of popular initiatives. The public was allowed to propose initiatives for norms to be discussed in the Convention. The proposals were submitted online and voted on by any Chilean with the right to vote. Each individual could propose and support up to seven initiatives and those that gained over 15,000 signatures from at least four different regions were discussed and voted on in the Convention. Many of the current articles in the draft came from, or are a reflection of, those initiatives.
Although the Economist dismissed the draft as ‘excessively progressive’—a phrase seemingly later changed in the article to ‘sometimes dotty’—what it ignores is that the progressive ideas contained within the draft were not imposed, manipulated, or designed by a minority group, but were largely built up through a coherent and transparent democratic process in which every individual from across the political spectrum was allowed to participate. The Economist seems to be confused about the fact that Chile, as a society, is becoming increasingly progressive and that people are growing disillusioned with the long-term imposition of neoliberal reforms that have rendered the country the most unequal in South America.
The Economist’s liberal imagination that Chile has been some ideal market economy does not align with the experience of so many of those growing up there. The Chilean people have, for decades, been envisioning a different country with different priorities. It is for this reason that the most popular initiatives voted upon were the right to social security, free education, universal health care, and the recognition of the rights of nature. The draft needed to reflect the societal initiatives required to build the foundations of a new social pact based on equality, solidarity, and justice—things that, perhaps, are simply beyond the liberal imagination.
The Economist concentrates on the argument that incorporation of social, political, and workers’ rights in the constitution would ‘blow up the budget’, but what they are largely confusing (or ignoring) is that Constitutions do not define budgets—legislators do. The constitution, if approved in September, will become a new roadmap for the making of the country, advancing the development of basic social rights that have been stripped from the Chilean people for the last forty years. Most importantly, the constitution will be the outcome of a popular democratic process, the first Chile has experienced since the return to democracy.
It is of this popular power that those writing for the Economist, as well as the national elites in Chile, are afraid. The possibility of accepting this draft in a referendum could consolidate the fact that the people who fell victim to the first neoliberal experiment have finally woken up.