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October 27, 2020

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CHILE: Key takeaways from constitutional referendum

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • A landslide in favor of a new constitution marks the beginning of an intense electoral cycle as well as the two-year constitutional process.
  • The results do not necessarily undermine the mechanism to ensure consensus and moderation in the new constitution.
  • A relatively high turnout should give the constitutional process legitimacy and help reduce violence and unrest.
  • Unrealistic expectations about what a new constitution can deliver – and the risk of new fiscal pressures arising from overambitious promises – represent critical challenges.

Referendum results

On 25 October, around 5.8mn voters cast ballots in favor of a new constitution, versus 1.6mn who voted against. Voters also opted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional assembly comprising 155 representatives specially elected to draft the new constitution. Elections for the assembly will take place in April 2021; the body must be up and running by May 2021 and will have between nine and 12 months to draft the new constitution, after which a ratifying referendum on the new constitution will take place.

Radicalism and the two-thirds question

The immediate takeaway from Sunday’s vote was that support for “yes” was even bigger than expected: 78.2% voted in favor of a new constitution versus 21.7% against. This is significant because, while the “no” campaign knew it was headed for defeat, the aim was to “lose respectably”, with around 30% of the vote. The significance of 30% lies in the fact that the constitution will require two-thirds approval in the constituent assembly – a feature designed to ensure compromise and consensus. With a result closer to 30%, the “no” campaign would have headed into the constituent assembly election process with more confidence that a one-third veto on radical proposals was achievable.

However, there is more to the final vote tally than meets the eye, and radicalism or a constituent assembly heavily skewed to the Left are not inevitable for three reasons:

1) the “no” vote is not a simple reflection of the Right and Center-Right. Parts of the National Renovation (RN) and Evopoli parties (both members of the governing Chile Vamos (CV) coalition) campaigned for “yes,” as did the Independent Democratic Union (UDI)’s Joaquin Lavin, mayor of the Santiago district of Las Condes and the Right’s early frontrunner to succeed President Sebastian Pinera in 2022.

2) turnout among the “no” segment may have been weakened by a) the vote being seen as a foregone conclusion and b) the Covid-19 situation, which could have deterred some older voters who might lean towards “no.” Importantly, factor a) is unlikely to be as relevant when it comes to the April 2021 constituent assembly elections, when “no” voters may mobilize precisely in response to fears about the Left and Center-Left securing a two-thirds majority in the assembly. If the pandemic has eased by next April (or if a vaccine has become widely available), factor b) could also boost voting for constituent assembly candidates with a more cautious/skeptical approach to constitutional reform.

3) the Left and Center-Left is (even) more divided than the Right and Center-Right. It is difficult to see the former bloc agreeing on single candidate lists for the constituent assembly elections; these divisions – which the victory for “yes” does not appear to have healed – should help the CV unite around single lists and common positions.

Parties under pressure

That said, divisions among both blocs are significant. Within the CV, it will take time to overcome the rancor caused by a referendum that was by its nature bisecting. Other electoral pressures are not conducive to the healing process. Municipal elections and votes for regional governors will accompany next April’s constituent assembly voting; these are already causing ructions between the parties that make up the old governing Nueva Mayoria (NM) coalition, the newer, more radical Broad Front (FA) bloc, and the Communists (PC). On top of that, the presidential election is a little over a year away.

Where does this all leave Pinera?

While there has been much discussion domestically about Pinera’s waning influence following the referendum, the reality is that the president may not be much more of a lame duck than he already was. It is true that the political focus will inevitably slide towards the new constituent assembly (once it is set up by May 2021). It will also be increasingly difficult for Pinera either to remain neutral in the upcoming constitutional debates or to keep presidential aspirants from within the CV from sparring publicly.

However, Pinera appears to have accepted that his role in what remains of his term is to shepherd the constitutional process. Pinera may actually enjoy a slight recovery in the polls if he can recast himself in this way (while maintaining the Covid-19 outbreak under control); for Pinera, it was a major positive that violent incidents were mainly contained in the aftermath of Sunday’s vote and that the referendum took place successfully in the shadow of an unprecedented public health crisis.

Participation, violence, and expectations

At over 50%, participation was high by Chilean standards (and the highest since voting became voluntary in 2012). Turnout was always going to be important, firstly to provide the new constitution with legitimacy, but also to undercut the violent protest movement, which has rebounded in recent weeks. Violence and unrest will probably not end entirely but should be easier to contain as the constitutional process channels public clamor for change.

A further challenge could come later down the line if/when the constitution that eventually takes shape is seen as failing to meet expectations for change. One recent poll indicated that over 50% of people believe a new constitution would help their economic situation. In this context, it is not helpful that presidential elections will take place as the constituent assembly is sitting because it could encourage candidates to make promises they cannot keep or fund without impairing fiscal stability.

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