The mind-boggling vote in Chile that rejected a new constitution : Peoples Dispatch

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A massive rally in Santiago in favor of the new constitution ahead of the September 4 vote. Photo: Daniel Jadue/Twitter

On September 4, 2022, more than 13 million Chileans – out of an eligible voting population of around 15 million – voted on a proposal to introduce a new constitution in the country. From March, polls began to suggest that the constitution might not pass. However, polls have for months suggested a narrowing of the advance for the side of the reject, and so supporters of the new constitution remained hopeful that their campaign would succeed in convincing the public to overturn the 1980 constitution imposed on the country by the military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. The date of the election, September 4, commemorated the day that Salvador Allende won the presidency in 1970. By 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 happens, Pinochet’s constitution remains in place with more than 61% of voters rejecting the new constitution and only 38% of voters approve of it.

On the eve of the elections, in the municipality of Recoleta (part of Chile’s capital, Santiago), Mayor Daniel Jadue led a massive rally in support of the adoption of the new constitution. Tens of thousands of people gathered in this mostly working-class neighborhood in the hope, as Jadue put it, of getting out of the “constitution of abuse”. However, that was not to be the case. Even in Recoleta, where Jadue is a popular mayor, the constitution has been voted down. The new constitution received 23,000 more votes than Jadue received in the last election – a sign that the number of leftist voters had increased – but the vote to reject the constitution was larger, meaning that new voters had a greater impact on the overall result.

On September 7, Jadue told us that he felt “calmed down”, that it was a significant step forward 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 or definitive defeat”, Jadue told us. People voted not only on the constitution but also on the terrible economic situation (inflation in Chile is more than 14.1%) and the management of it by the government. Just like the plebiscite 2020 writing a new constitution was punishment for former President Sebastián Piñera, it was punishment for the Boric government’s inability to solve the people’s problems. Jadue’s “calmness” stems from his belief that if the left goes to the people with a program of action and is able to respond to the people’s needs, then the 5 million who voted for the constitution will see their numbers greatly increased.

Hours after the final vote was announced, analysts on all sides tried to come to terms with what was a major defeat for the government. Francisca Fernández Droguett, member of the Movement for Water and Territories, wrote in an article for El Ciudadano that the answer to defeat lay in the government’s decision to make this election compulsory. “Compulsory voting brought us face to face with a sector of society that we were unaware of in its tendencies, not only its political tendencies but also its values.” This is precisely what happened in Recoleta. She pointed out that there was a general feeling among the political class that those who had voted historically would – because of their general orientation towards the state – have a view closer to forms of progressivism. This turned out not to be the case. The campaign for the constitution has failed to highlight the economic issues that matter to people who live on the edge of social inequality. In fact, the reaction to the loss…blame the poor (turnis the derogatory word) for the loss – was a reflection of the narrow-minded politics that was visible during the campaign for the new constitution.

Droguett’s point on mandatory voting is share across the political spectrum. Until 2012, voting in Chile was compulsory, but voter registration was voluntary; then, in 2012, with the who passed a reform of the electoral law, registration was made automatic but voting was voluntary. For such a consequential election, the government decided to make the entire voting process compulsory for all Chileans over the age of 18 who were eligible to vote, with the imposition of substantial fines for those who did not vote. It turned out that 85.81% of the people registered on the electoral lists voted, which is much more than the 55.65 percent of voters who cast their ballots in Chile’s second-highest turnout in the 2021 presidential election.

A comparison between the second round of voting in the 2021 presidential election and the recent vote on the constitution is instructive. In December 2021, Chilean President Gabriel Boric – at the head of the center-left coalition Apruebo Dignidad –won 4.6 million votes. Apruebo Dignidad campaigned for the constitution and won 4.8 million votes. In other words, the Apruebo Dignidad vote in December 2021 and the vote for the new constitution were pretty much the same. Boric’s opponent, José Antonio Kast, who openly rented Pinochet – won 3.65 million votes. Kast was among those who campaigned against the new constitution and the “Reject” option garnered 7.88 million voters. In other words, the votes against the constitution were twice as many as the votes Kast was able to garner. This figure does not register, as Jadue told us, as a shift to the right in Chile, but rather as an absolute rejection of the entire political system, including the constitutional convention.

One of the least noticed elements of political life in Chile — as in other parts of Latin America — is the rapid growth evangelical churches (notably Pentecostal). About 20% of the Chilean population identifies as evangelical. In 2021, Kast went at the thanksgiving service of an evangelical congregation, the only representative invited to such an event. Forced to vote at the ballot box by the new mandatory system, a large portion of evangelical voters rejected the proposed new constitution because of its liberal social agenda. Jadue told us that the evangelical community failed to recognize that the new constitution grants evangelicals “equal treatment with the Roman Catholic Church because it guarantees freedom of worship.”

Those who did not favor the constitution began campaigning against its liberal program immediately after the constitution of the constituent assembly. While those who favored the new constitution waited for it to be drafted, they refrained from campaigning in areas where evangelical churches dominated and opposition to the constitution was clear. The constitution was rejected as an expression of growing discontent among Chileans with the general direction of social liberalism that has been assumed by many – including the leadership of the Frente Amplio – to be the inevitable progression of the country’s politics. The distance between evangelicals and the center-left is evident not only in Chile – where the results are now posted – but also in Chile. Brazilwho faces a consequential presidential election in October.

Meanwhile, two days after the election, schoolchildren took to the streets. The text they circulated for their protest bristles with poetry: “Faced with people without memory, students make history with organization and struggle”. This whole cycle of the new constitution and center-left Boric government began in 2011-2013, when Boric and several of his cabinet members were in middle School and when they started their political career. The high school students – who faced brutal police and are now responding to Boric – want to blaze a new trail. They were appalled by an election that wanted to determine their future, but which they were unable to participate in due to their age.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Taroa Zúñiga Silva is a writer and Spanish media coordinator for Globetrotter. She is co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice of the Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the coordinating committee of Argos: International Observatory on Migration and Human Rights and is a member of the Mecha Cooperativaa project of Ejército Comunicacional de Liberation.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is editor and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a non-resident principal investigator at Chongyang Institute of Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written over 20 books, including darkest nations and The poorest nations. His latest books are Struggle makes us human: learning from movements for socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of American Power.

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