A new constitution was a key demand of the Chilean mass uprisings in 2019, which forced the former Sebastián Piñera government to hold a national plebiscite in 2020.
Nearly 80% of Chileans voted to draft a new constitution, which was developed by a 155-member gender-equal Constitutional Convention.
However, less than two years later, about 62% of Chileans chose to reject (Rechazo) the new constitution in a plebiscite held on September 4. Why?
The draft would have replaced Chile’s current constitution — introduced in 1980 during the United States-backed military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — which favours neoliberalism and denies constitutional rights to Indigenous people and women.
The 1980 constitution established the blueprint for decades of privatisation, profits for capitalist interests and misery for Chile’s poorest.
The new document sought to break from the Pinochet era and would have enshrined gender parity in public institutions, Indigenous self-determination, universal healthcare, the rights of nature and nationalised public education.
Since the October 2020 plebiscite, and particularly when the Constitutional Convention was set up in July last year, right-wing groups worked to undermine support for the Apruebo (Approve) vote. The Apruebo campaign only started in July after the draft constitution was finished and the Convention dissolved.
The Rechazo (Reject) campaign was well-funded and had support from powerful groups — such as big business, evangelical churches and the economic elite — who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Wealthy backers donated more than 1.5 billion pesos (A$2.3 million) to the Rechazo campaign, while the Apruebo campaign received 78 million (A$121,000), according to data published by Fundación Sol.
A website mimicking the Convention’s website claimed that the draft constitution’s provisions against water privatisation would prohibit people from buying bags of ice or bottled water. Farmers were told they would be left without water for their crops — a particularly heinous claim given the role that the current neoliberal system has played in creating Chile’s water crisis.
Conservative mainstream media helped fuel the spread of disinformation and distortions in the lead-up to the plebiscite.
Copesa’s billionaire owner Álvaro Saieh was part of the “Chicago Boys” — a group of economists that imposed Chile’s neoliberal regime during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Saieh owns one of Chile’s biggest banks, supermarket Unimarc and hotel chains. His ideological and financial interest in maintaining the current constitution is unsurprising.
El Mercurio played a significant role in running misinformation campaigns in the lead-up to the CIA-backed military coup against democratically-elected leftist President Salvador Allende, in 1973. The company’s media outlets subsequently helped cover up the Pinochet regime’s crimes.
Corporate media coverage was heavily skewed in favour of the Rechazo campaign, spreading disinformation and giving a platform to right-wing figures.
Right-wing senator Felipe Kast — son of Miguel Kast, who served under Pinochet — claimed in June that the new constitution would permit abortions up to the ninth month of a pregnancy. In reality, the draft constitution codified the guarantee of reproductive rights, while leaving the specific details of any abortion laws to legislators.
Media outlets disseminated fake news such as that the new constitution would allow money to be taken away from pensioners, people’s houses to be seized and the national flag to be changed.
Chilean activist movement Ukamau released a statement on the night of the plebiscite, condemning the role of corporate-owned media in the Rechazo campaign: “From an almost total control of the mass media they installed the idea that the proposal was flawed in form and substance, appealing to deep feelings like fear and nationalism.”
Scare campaigns, often rooted in racism, claiming that provisions in the draft constitution would grant more rights to Indigenous people — and would somehow trump or undermine everyone else’s — were successful in shifting public opinion. Proposals in the draft constitution to create a plurinational state and Indigenous justice system attracted the highest disapproval, according to a poll by Espacio Público-IPSOS.
Other racist attacks targeted women and Indigenous leaders of the Convention, particularly its president Elisa Loncón, a Mapuche woman and Indigenous rights activist.
“From day one, the campaign against the new constitution manipulated what I said and sowed lies,” Loncón said. “What they want is to silence and minimise us. All of the Mapuche women in the convention were subject to these attacks.”
Some have criticised the Gabriel Boric government’s approach to the new constitution and argued that it was one of the reasons for the Rechazo victory.
Bruno Magalhães and Pedro Fuentes wrote in International Viewpoint that “[Boric’s] policy towards the new Constitution was contradictory, hesitant, and his support was timid.”
They said that the victory for the Rechazo campaign was “a vote of punishment against the government for its inability”, and “not a conscious vote of support for the right”.
Despite the draft constitution’s provisions for Indigenous rights and self-determination, the Boric government’s treatment of Mapuche people likely alienated his supporter base in the lead-up to the plebiscite.
In his presidential campaign, Boric promised to de-escalate military presence in Araucanía, in Chile’s south, where Mapuche people have resisted against the government and capitalist interests such as logging companies. However, the government declared a state of emergency for the region in May, deployed the military and arrested Mapuche leaders.
Atus Mariqueo-Russell from Indigenous rights group Mapuche Link International said in a May 27 statement: “Rather than further militarising an area with an already heavily militarised, corrupt, and violent police force, President Boric should honour his promise of providing land restitution for Chile’s indigenous population.”
The Rechazo vote in Araucanía was 74% — the second-highest level of support in Chile’s regions.
Magalhães and Fuentes said that the Boric government “does not represent the aspirations arising from the popular mobilisation of 2019”. The Mapuche flag became a symbol of the fight for Indigenous rights during the mobilisations in 2019.
Aside from its treatment of the Mapuche, the government showed a lack of real commitment to the constitutional process. Efforts to engage people with the constitution extended little beyond rhetoric and free distribution of the 178-page document.
Cuba’s recent referendum to pass a new family law allowing same-sex marriage involved extensive public consultation, with more than 79,000 town hall-style neighbourhood meetings and debate in various forums. The family code was revised several times to reflect more than 150,000 submissions made during public consultation.
Noam Titelman wrote in NACLA that many people became alienated through the constitutional process, leading to a decline in support for the Convention and the new constitution. The type of on-the-ground engagement used in Cuba could have helped dispel the distortions and disinformation that ultimately shifted public opinion.
However, the material conditions that influence voting should not be overlooked. The Boric government inherited a poor economic situation during the COVID-19 pandemic and structural limitations on government power due to Chile’s neoliberal constitution.
General discontent, due to rising inflation and living costs, and disapproval of the Boric government likely translated into votes rejecting the new constitution.
After the plebiscite, Chile’s elite and big business figures came out on social media to celebrate the Rechazo victory. But, these celebrations were small, and limited to the wealthy neighbourhoods of Santiago and Antofagasta.
The lack of real grassroots mobilisation for the Rechazo and the massive demonstrations in favour of a new constitution show the energy for change in Chile.
“From the point of view of the working class and the people,” International Workers Movement Chile said in a September 10 statement, “we must return to the grassroots, strengthen popular movements, youth groups and housing organizations, recover the unions from the bureaucracy and thus fight for better living conditions.”