The bewildering vote in Chile that rejected a new constitution

September 14, 2022
A rally in support of the new constitution on September 1 in Santiago. Photo: @danieljadue/Twitter

More than 13 million Chileans — out of a voting-eligible population of about 15 million — voted on September 4, 2022, on a proposal to introduce a new constitution. As early as March, polls began to suggest that the constitution would not be able to pass. However, polls had hinted for months at a narrowing of the lead for the rejection camp, and so proponents of the new constitution remained hopeful that their campaign would, in the end, successfully convince the public to set aside the 1980 constitution introduced by General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

The date for the election commemorated the day that Salvador Allende won the presidency in 1970. On that date, those who wanted a new constitution suggested that the ghost of Pinochet — who overthrew Allende in a violent coup in 1973 — would be exorcised. As it happened, Pinochet’s constitution remains in place, with more than 61% of voters rejecting the new constitution and only 38% of voters approving it.

The day before the election, in the municipality of Recoleta — a part of the capital city Santiago — Mayor Daniel Jadue led a massive rally in support of passing the new constitution. Tens of thousands of people gathered in this largely working-class area with the hope, as Jadue put it, of leaving behind the “constitution of abuses”.

However, it was not to be. Even in Recoleta, where Jadue is a popular mayor, the constitution was defeated. The new constitution received 23,000 more votes than he received in the last election — a sign that the number of voters on the left has increased. But, the vote to reject the constitution was larger, which meant that new voters made a greater impact on the overall result.

Jadue said on September 7 that he was feeling “calm”, that it was a significant advance that nearly 5 million Chileans voted for the constitution and that “for the first time we have a constitutional project that is written and can be transformed into a much more concrete political program”. There is “no definitive victory and no definitive defeat”, he said.

Government failures

People voted not only on the constitution, but also on the terrible economic situation (inflation in Chile is more than 14% percent) and the government’s management of it. Just as the 2020 plebiscite to draft a new constitution was a punishment for former President Sebastián Piñera, this was a punishment for the Gabriel Boric government’s inability to address the problems of the people.

Jadue’s “calm” stems from his confidence that if the left goes to the people with a program of action and can address the people’s needs, then the 5 million who voted for the constitution will find their numbers significantly increased.

Within hours of the final vote being announced, analysts from all sides tried to come to terms with what was a great defeat for the government.

Movement for Water and Territories member Francisca Fernández Droguett wrote in an article for El Ciudadano that the answer to the defeat lay in the decision by the government to make the election mandatory. “Compulsory voting put us face to face with a sector of society that we were unaware of in terms of its tendencies, not only its political tendencies but also its values,” she wrote.

This is precisely what happened in Recoleta. Droguett pointed out that there was a general sentiment among the political class that those who had historically voted would — because of their general orientation toward the state — have a viewpoint that was closer to forms of progressivism.

That proved not to be the case. The campaign for the constitution did not highlight the economic issues that are important to the people who live at the rough end of social inequality. In fact, the reaction — blaming the poor (rotear is the disparaging word) for the loss — was a reflection of the narrow-minded politics visible during the campaign for the new constitution.

Compulsory voting

Droguett’s point about compulsory voting is shared across the political spectrum. Until 2012, voting in Chile was compulsory, but registration for the electoral roll was voluntary. With the passing of an election law reform, registration was made automatic, but voting was voluntary.

For such a consequential election, the government decided to make voting mandatory for all Chileans over 18 years old who were eligible to vote, with the imposition of considerable fines for those who would not vote. As it turned out, 86% percent of those on the electoral rolls voted, which is far more than the 56% who voted in the second record turnout in Chile during the presidential election last year.

A comparison between the second round of voting during last year’s presidential election and the recent vote on the constitution is instructive. Boric — leading the centre-left Apruebo Dignidad coalition — won 4.6 million votes. Apruebo Dignidad campaigned for the constitution and won 4.8 million votes. That is, the Apruebo Dignidad vote last year and the vote for the new constitution was about the same.

Boric’s opponent José Antonio Kast — who openly praised Pinochet — won 3.7 million votes. Kast campaigned against the new constitution and was defeated by 7.9 million voters. That is, the votes against the constitution were double the votes that Kast was able to garner.

Jadue said this figure does not register as a shift to the right in Chile, but is an absolute rejection of the entire political system, including the constitutional convention.

Evangelical churches

One of the least remarked-upon elements of political life in Chile — as is in other parts of Latin America — is the rapid growth of evangelical (notably Pentecostal) churches. About 20% of the population identifies as evangelical.

Kast went to the thanksgiving service of an evangelical congregation last year — the only representative invited to such an event. Forced to vote in the polls by the new mandatory system, a large section of evangelical voters rejected the proposal for a new constitution because of its liberal social agenda.

Jadue said that the evangelical community failed to recognise that the new constitution gave evangelicals “equal treatment with the Roman Catholic Church because it ensured freedom of worship”.

Those opposed to the constitution began to campaign against its liberal agenda right after the constituent assembly was empaneled, while those who were in favour of the new constitution waited for it to be drafted. They refrained from campaigning in the regions where evangelical churches held sway and opposition to the constitution was clear.

The constitution was rejected as an expression of the growing discontent regarding the general direction of social liberalism that was assumed by many — including the leadership of Frente Amplio — to be the inevitable progression in the country’s politics. The distance between the evangelicals and the centre-left is evident not only in Chile — where the results are on display now — but also in Brazil, which faces a consequential presidential election in October.

Two days after the plebiscite, school children took to the streets. The text they circulated for their protest bristles with poetry: “In the face of people without memory, students make history with organisation and struggle.” This entire cycle of the new constitution and the centre-left Boric government began in 2011–2013, when Boric and many of his cabinet members were at university and began their political careers.

The high school students — who faced the brutal police and now answer to Boric — want to open a new road. They were dismayed by an election that wanted to determine their future, but in which they could not participate due to their age.

[This article was produced by Globetrotter. Taroa Zúñiga Silva is a writing fellow and the Spanish media coordinator for Globetrotter. She is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.