The election of the far right to Chile’s Constitutional Council is another major blow to the hope of a new constitution. But the Chilean left isn’t defeated yet.

Jose Antonio Kast, founder of Partido Republicano, speaking at the party’s headquarters following the Constitutional Council elections in Santiago, Chile, on May 7, 2023. (Cristobal Olivares / Bloomberg via Getty Images

After riding high on a wave of optimism in 2021 and 2022, the fight for constitutional change in Chile has come crashing down in spectacular fashion. Propelled by the 2019 social uprising and galvanized by the electoral victory of Gabriel Boric, the dream of burying the Pinochet-era constitution has unexpectedly run aground and now faces an uncertain future.

The first announcement of a “Chilean Thermidor” came with the defeat of the September 2022 exit plebiscite. Many leftists had steeled themselves for a hard-fought campaign, knowing that it would be difficult to win public approval for such a radical constitutional proposal (with controversial measures such as indigenous autonomy and rights for the natural world coming under special scrutiny). Still, few could have foreseen such a calamitous result: the 62 percent rejection of the new constitution was a bellwether event, less a temporary setback than the first in a string of disorienting defeats.

The Boric administration tops the list of political casualties. Tying his own reform agenda to the passage of the new constitution, Boric’s most ambitious policy initiatives were effectively neutralized by the rejection vote. Through no fault of his own, Boric now risks going down in history as the leftist president who achieved less than his right-wing predecessor, Sebastián Piñera, to advance the cause of a new constitution.

Meanwhile, Chile still awaits a new constitution. With little fanfare and minimal press coverage, the writing of a constitutional text has resumed — except this time the process is dominated by a technocratic group of “experts” and the newcomer Republicanos, a far-right formation headed by presidential candidate and Pinochet-apologist José Antonio Kast.

Nicolas Allen spoke to political scientist Aldo Madariaga to better understand what lies behind the right-wing victory in the newly formed Constitutional Council. Author of Neoliberal Resilience: Lessons in Democracy and Development from Latin America and Eastern Europe, Madariaga analyzes the different factors leading to successive left-wing defeats at the ballot box while underscoring that there is still room to move the constitutional process in a progressive direction.

Nicolas Allen

Many people were taken by surprise when the far right won elections for the Constitutional Council. Can you catch us up to speed on what’s been happening in Chile since the rejection of the 2022 plebiscite?

Aldo Madariaga

It’s true, Chile’s constitutional process has fallen off the international and Chilean radar. Initially, everyone was pondering the meaning of the 2022 rejection vote. But, eventually, the question became a different one: Would the demand for change even survive at all? Many on the Right claimed that the rejection vote was actually people second-guessing whether a new constitution was even worth all the trouble.

For a time, the Left tried to keep the spirit of the constitution alive and drum up support for a new process. But Chilean citizens have grown weary of protracted campaigns and drawn-out debates, many of which seemed to be needlessly polarizing society. Just think: we voted four or five times over two years — during a pandemic!

Chile had one of the longest lockdowns in the world, and when we emerged from the pandemic, the transformative spirit of the October 2019 estallido social (social uprising) felt like a distant memory and was no longer particularly useful for rallying popular support for a new constitution. A sense of exhaustion had set in and Chileans had a new set of problems on their plate — inflation, recession, etc. And yet, something had to be done because there was a legal mandate that the Constitution had to be changed.

It was against that backdrop that negotiations came to a compromise: based on their weight in the Chamber and Senate, parties with representation in Congress would choose representatives for an “expert commission” to design a pre-written constitutional document; at a second stage, an elected “constitutional council” would draw upon this document to write a constitutional proposal which, at the final stage, will be submitted to a referendum for approval or rejection. The Expert Commission is currently voting on articles and amendments to present in the pre-written draft, while the Constitutional Council will start its work toward the end of the year.

Nicolas Allen

The fact that the far right controls the Constitutional Council has led many to call the time of death for the new constitution. Is this the last laugh of [Augusto] Pinochet, i.e., the essential preservation of the Pinochet-era constitution by other means?

Aldo Madariaga

If you had asked me the day after the election for the Constitutional Council, my answer would have been a simple “yes.” I was very saddened that day. However, politically speaking, the new scenario is more complex and presents major dilemmas not just for the Left, but also for the Right and more moderate centrists. For example, the “moderate” right now finds itself torn between subsuming itself under the leadership of the far right (and thus abandoning its thin democratic credentials), or isolating itself from part of its own base by moving closer to the center.

It feels odd to be speaking here about the “moderate right,” because those moderates include the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), a party founded by ex-Pinochet-regime collaborators. The pinochetista spirit is still alive in that party, but a new generation of leaders within the UDI seems committed to leaving behind the most explicit parts of the Pinochet legacy — at least enough to consider a new constitution. For their supposed moderation, the Republicanos have dismissed the UDI and other traditional conservative sectors as the “ashamed right.” As the UDI loses some of its more radical base to the Republicanos, it has more reason to try to isolate the far right and negotiate toward the center.

As for the Constitution itself, there seems to be a broad consensus within the Expert Commission that what is needed is a pre-document that can provide a common ground. If the moderate right within the Constitutional Council can respect that common ground, the proposals set by the commission could eventually become the outline for the new constitution. Mind you, “common ground” here includes several ideas that are actually dear to the Left, including the categorization of Chile as a “social” and democratic state.

That alone would mean the end of the so-called subsidiary state, a constitutional straitjacket that has prevented the Chilean state from engaging in a whole range of economic activities and guaranteeing the provision of public services. It would, for example, help to create stronger public health and social security services by removing a guaranteed “choice” clause, which has allowed for the privatization of health care. In other words, it’s not so bad at all.

Nicolas Allen

You said that the traditional right is trying to isolate the Republicanos. But, does the recent electoral victory of the Republicanos not reflect a more enduring shift in voting patterns toward the far right? Many had claimed that Republicano presidential candidate José Antonio Kast performed as well as he did in 2022 because of voter fragmentation. Does the victory at the council suggest otherwise — that they might be consolidating their base?

Aldo Madariaga

I don’t think so. Many on the Right would like you to believe that, and there are those asking the government to further moderate its program — more than it already has — to offset this supposed rightward shift. But I think the victory of the Republicanos is consistent with the type of negative voting patterns that political scientists are observing across the region, not just in Chile. Because of widespread political disaffection, people increasingly vote against and not for something. When that’s the case, opposition parties always have the upper hand because they can channel discontent, regardless of whether people like their proposals.

Voters who previously preferred the Partido de la Gente in the 2022 presidential race felt that their best alternative this time around was the Republicanos.

Another factor in the far right’s surprise victory was the last-minute electoral collapse of the People’s Party (Partido de la Gente), a catch-all populist party with no clear ideological line. The Partido de la Gente has attracted a large part of this disenchanted electoral base, an electorate that, like the Partido de la Gente, increasingly questions whether the new constitution is worth the time and effort that could be spent addressing more pressing issues. That is to say, voters who previously preferred the Partido de la Gente in the 2022 presidential race — when it won around 12 percent — felt that their best alternative this time around was the Republicanos.

Another decisive factor in the election was the number of spoiled ballots (voto nulo), which accounted for more than 20 percent of all votes, the highest number on record. This is another sign that what is driving this process — which could be mistaken for a rightward drift — is weariness with the whole constitutional discussion. Again, in that sense, it doesn’t seem all bad that the Expert Commission is now reaching a quick agreement to deliver a document that, while not as participatory or visionary as the rejected draft constitution, can actually be approved and replace the Pinochet constitution.

Nicolas Allen

Some might call that a Pyrrhic victory, considering all that’s been lost. Shouldn’t we at least lament the fact that the Constitution’s preliminary articles are being drafted by a technocratic body of experts?

Aldo Madariaga

Yes, of course. But the situation comes with a lot of surprises and paradoxes, too. As your question suggests, the Expert Commission was designed in such a way as to remove any kind of democratic element, which is devastating considering the whole process began with such a strong democratic spirit. On the other hand, the Constitutional Council seemed like a last-ditch opportunity to bring those transformative forces back into the picture, albeit in a much more limited capacity than in the first convention.

For example, this time there would be no special seats reserved for indigenous peoples, and independent candidates would not be allowed to run on separate lists. Those were two of the more interesting novelties introduced with the 2022 Constitutional Assembly, regardless of what one might think personally about the role of independents in the Convention.

Of course, things turned out differently. The elections for the council resulted in a landslide victory for the far right: 36 percent of the vote went to the Republicanos, a party openly nostalgic for the Pinochet era. Meanwhile, the government coalition — comprised of the Frente Amplio, Socialists, and Communists — fell short of the one-third vote it needed to be able to exercise the veto, which means that the broadly defined right — everything from the far right to the moderate right — will control enough seats in the council to pass whatever they want. And the center-left Concertación, which governed the country for more than twenty years since 1990, was completely wiped out and left without any representation.

Again to your question, in this context, the work of the Expert Commission has suddenly become extremely strategically important for the center-left and the Left. The Left has higher representation within the commission than in the council, so they may be able to define certain key areas before the pre-document reaches the council later in 2023.

Furthermore, in the current context, negotiating with the moderate right does not necessarily mean capitulation. The moderate right seems committed to seeing through the passage of a new constitution and knows that the far-right may boycott the whole process once the council starts its work. Actually, the fear is that the far right will push for the finished proposal to be rejected in the final referendum vote. Were that to happen, after years of protracted negotiations, Chile would end up with the same Pinochet constitution as before.

To distinguish itself from the far right, the moderate right wants to foreground its democratic credentials, which may lead them to make concessions in order to guarantee the passage of the new constitution. That means that they are hashing out a consensus within the Expert Commission to present a constitutional text that the majority of actors across the political spectrum — from the Communist Party to the rightist UDI — would be willing to approve.

Now, the question is: Why did the Left approve this new process knowing it was in such a poor bargaining position after the defeat of the plebiscite in September 2022?

The rejection vote can actually be read in a number of different ways — not simply as a condemnation of the Left. But I think it is completely wrong to say — as many are — that the whole process has just been hijacked by the Right. The Congress — which, it’s true, did appoint the Experts Commission — still has some real legitimacy. After all, it was elected more or less at the same time as the 2022 Constitutional Convention and presumedly drew from a similar spirit. So I believe it is more complex than a simple right-wing deviation of the constitutional process.

After the defeated plebiscite, the central dilemma for progressives has been the following: faced with a radical right that wanted to kill the entire process, they had to prevent the center and traditional right from joining them in that effort. So progressives negotiated an arrangement that basically brought the “moderate” right back into the fold and kept them from allying with the radical right, in exchange for significant concessions in terms of the limits to the transformative potential of the new process. In fact, even before the Expert Committee was selected by the parties, Congress drew up a document that set “boundaries” — their own words — that the council would have to respect. In hindsight, after the landslide victory of the far right in the elections of the Constitutional Council, that compromise doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

Nicolas Allen

Where does all this leave Boric? He was supposed to be the president that signed into law a new constitution.

Aldo Madariaga

The project on which Boric won the presidency no longer exists. For better or for worse, Boric’s government was the public face of the constitutional process. There are those on the more radical left who might question whether he faithfully represented that process, but no one really questioned his association with that cause. And his administration’s success stood or fell based on the Constitution, as the government itself reminded the public before the rejection vote in September 2022.

Governing at the same time as the constituent process was taking place has been a huge problem for Boric. The problem is that all governments have to deliver short-term, tangible achievements. They do not have fifty years to work on policies associated with a constitutional process, like promoting justice in indigenous territories or conferring a set of rights on the natural environment. These long-term struggles are very important, of course, but when inflation is at a thirty-year high, they can leave people with a sense of cognitive dissonance.

So in a way, Boric’s government was hostage to the Constitution. But, in another sense, they did everything possible to tie their fate to it. From the outset, his ministers said that if Chileans wanted things like universal health care, they would have to approve the Constitution. In a sense that was true — the former constitution wouldn’t allow for that type of system. But Boric’s government actively tied their reform program to the new constitution and shot themselves in the foot. Although, in truth, they probably didn’t have much choice except to do so.

The best thing now for Boric and his administration would be for everyone to stop talking about the Constitution. Why keep talking about the political system? Why choose new constituent members? Just look what has happened as the process goes on: suddenly, the only thing anyone is concerned with in Chilean politics is public security. Not by accident, one of the victorious parties in the Constitutional Council election was the recently formed moderate-right coalition, called Chile Seguro (Safe Chile). The far right has campaigned in favor of writing a constitution that protects the use of police force, the state of exception, and other repressive measures. Forget social rights, the political system, and all those progressive debates from earlier. Worse still, Boric’s government has been drawn into these discussions on security.

The problem is that there is still a high correlation between approval rates for the Constitution and the approval of Boric’s administration. That means Boric’s government can’t set its own agenda without constantly being drawn into these constitutional debates. So, in essence, the initial project that brought Boric’s administration to power has died with the rejection, and the new government agenda is much more reformist as a result.

Nicolas Allen

How did public security suddenly shoot to the top of the political agenda? It seems like there has been a real increase in crime in Chile, which is probably related to worsening economic conditions. But what’s pushing that issue to the forefront of political discussions?

Aldo Madariaga

I think it is important to bear in mind the effects of the pandemic. The pandemic hit hard everywhere, but in Chile, it was really tough because of harsh quarantine measures. People were locked up and fearful, and they started to forget what it was like to inhabit public space. When they did return to those public spaces, especially in Santiago, it was the same place as the 2019 social uprising. This was a hostile public space that had seen countless human rights violations, police repression, and massive unrest. It was also an untidy, ugly, and neglected public space.

The media has seized on this sense of a hostile public space to create a general sense of insecurity: the streets are full of disorder, crime, bad odors, etc. Eventually, people began to associate the degradation of public space with the social uprising itself.

The media has seized on this sense of a hostile public space to create a general sense of insecurity; people began to associate the degradation of public space with the social uprising itself.

Now, I’m not an expert in criminology, but I believe that one of the questions that the Left has to ask itself is: What do we do with the crime problem? What does a leftist agenda on crime look like? It’s fine to say: “We will attack inequality, and crime will disappear. After all, it’s all a structural issue.” But the increase in crime is real. There has been an explosion of uncontrolled immigration and international drug trafficking networks have found a very real foothold in Chile.

The Left needs to find a more convincing way to address the crime issue, especially because it comes so naturally to the Right. The Right does not have a real project to offer the country, just authoritarianism and police impunity.

Nicolas Allen

It must be a thorny issue for the Chilean left to address since the national military police, i.e., the Carabineros, is directly connected to the Pinochet dictatorship and was involved in countless abuses in 2019. It seems like there’s a thin line between policing crime and policing social unrest.

Aldo Madariaga

I think the rejection vote has closed down any possible discussion on the Left. For example, the Socialist Party has called for the government to simply embrace the Right’s security agenda. There is no debate about what a left agenda on crime might even look like. They just vow to uphold the Right’s repressive agenda in order not to alienate more voters.

I also think the government has been very naive. The administration just assumed that, since its own members emerged from social movements, they could claim legitimacy on certain social issues and not have to think about the use of force. With that same mentality, the government committed some serious blunders with the Mapuche communities in the south of Chile. The government has slowly realized that governing means holding the legitimate monopoly of force. However leftist you are, no matter how much you want to engage in dialogue with different social sectors, if you lose the legitimate monopoly of force, you have a major problem.

Nicolas Allen

Do you think that there needs to be a real reckoning with what happened in the 2022 plebiscite before the Chilean left can find its footing again? How do you personally understand the rejection of the proposed constitution?

Aldo Madariaga

The precedent of the estallido, or uprising, made the cause for a new constitution feel like it had this great depth and dignity — which I personally think it did. The question is, how did we get from a fairly convincing narrative of change to the rejection of the proposed constitution? Do we just take for granted that the whole diagnosis was wrong? Take, for example, the population of Petorca, a community known for suffering water shortages because local agribusiness uses all the nearby water to irrigate avocado farming. Nearly 60 percent of the voters in Petorca rejected a constitution that would have established access to water as a human right and re-nationalized water resources. Are we to interpret that rejection as a preference for water privatization? Unfortunately, that simplistic understanding of the rejection vote has become pretty widespread.

On the other hand, there are those on the far left who have argued that the process was not sufficiently radical and that it was co-opted by elites within the convention. I think that interpretation is also highly misleading. The rejection of the constitutional proposal cannot be taken, on the one hand, as a conspiracy of the political superstructure, nor can it simply be attributed to voters’ false consciousness.

I think it all connects back to certain material conditions. Before, we were discussing public concerns for safety: in a sense, people may have felt that the proposed constitution brought too much uncertainty or it was unclear how it would affect their hard-earned livelihoods. The fear of losing what you already have can be very strong during times of uncertainty.

While I agree with you that the Left needs to work to understand the defeat, it’s not so easy either. Even just emotionally speaking, it’s hard for all of us who were involved in the process to think about the issue. People really committed themselves to the cause and, in a sense, we ended up on the wrong side of history. Just months ago, the Left appeared in the national media talking about how great their constitution was. Now they are treated like pariahs.

Nicolas Allen

That disconnect is striking: the Left was convinced of the progressive effects of the new constitution, while the average Chilean felt it brought too much uncertainty. Was too much hope for sweeping social change pinned on the Constitution? Can a constitution alone bring into being structural change of that type?

Aldo Madariaga

I’m going to refer to something political scientist Juan Pablo Luna said when the process was just getting started. He said the best scenario was one in which the Constitution would be approved regardless of the outcome. That is, to borrow a phrase from Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler, the plot was more important than the outcome. The process through which the new constitution was made was more important than whatever articles would end up in the final document.

For example, I really liked the environmental sections of the previous constitutional proposal. In terms of all the issues related to the natural world, those proposals were truly pioneering. But now, I ask myself, could those demands have been left to congressional legislation or reduced to a certain set of general principles?

That really is what your question is about: What is a constitution for? What I have seen in my own research is that constitutions establish a basic development model by setting boundaries around what can and cannot be done. For example, the old Chilean Constitution was unique in terms of how much it reduced the space for what could be done. Usually, a constitution does not explicitly define a country’s development path and leaves it to the government to decide freely what type of socioeconomic development it will pursue. The previous constitution in Chile was unique in terms of how much it constricted that space for decision and how much it reduced any space for democratic discussion of development. In theory, the capacity of a government to respond to citizens’ changing demands is what justifies having a democratic system in the first place — the Chilean Constitution was uniquely limiting in that respect.

Again, what can a constitution do? It can open up possibilities. The problem was that the proposed constitution was tasked with more: it had become a place where demands that had been postponed for too long were suddenly supposed to be fulfilled. As a result, the constitution became overloaded with laws.

Whereas the demand for a new constitution had emerged because Chile’s political institutions were so thoroughly discredited, the new document was tasked with solving problems that went far beyond anything a constitution can do.

And that was the paradox. The new constitution — which is an institutional solution to institutional problems — became a way to solve problems that were not simply institutional. So, whereas the demand for a new constitution had emerged because Chile’s political institutions were so thoroughly discredited, the new document was tasked with solving problems that went far beyond anything a constitution can do: problems related to the country’s underlying economic structure, the power of the national business class, the use of resources, etc.

Again, the most important part of the constitutional experience was the process: to allow for new forms of political representation to arise and to produce an independent text, regardless of whatever it contained. But, in the end, neither the process nor the content has really survived. Instead, we now have the Expert Commission designing the fundamental outline of the Constitution and a Constitutional Council dominated by the radical right.

Nicolas Allen

Is there anything the Chilean left can salvage from the experience — if not as a victory, then as a lesson?

Aldo Madariaga

I think the constitutional process was a truly exceptional moment and it left several important lessons for progressives and the Left. For one, I think it will teach us to be more cautious with our analyses: we all know that we live in a capitalist system, and yet, there is still too much voluntarism in our thinking. What I mean is, there is too much willingness to see a particular political process as the single defining cause that will change everything.

This came up in debates over how to label the estallido, the main point of contention being whether it should be called a “revolt.” I personally don’t know if that’s the right label. But, in any case, I fear that using that kind of language and then expecting a certain predefined unfolding of events to occur can lead us to ignore a real living process. I think we need to have a little more awareness about how our categories can distance us from unfolding processes.

Nicolas Allen

Many people criticized the convention members for the voluntarism you’re describing. Some argued that the convention lost popular support because members behaved as if they were the only authentic representation of the people, ignoring that other state institutions also have their own forms of representativeness.

Aldo Madariaga

Totally. There is an essentialism that assumes that the Constitutional Convention was the unmediated reflection of the people. Demographically, of course, it really was the most representative body in the country’s history, at least in terms of how it reflected the diversity of Chile. But there’s still something off-putting about that body –or any other body– saying, “I am the people.” Who are the people? When you say that, what you’re really doing is countering one group’s definition of who the people are with your own. The thing is, when the people themselves speak, we have to learn how to interpret what they are saying.

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