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July 1, 2021

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CHILE: Path to a new constitution unlikely to be straightforward

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • The constituent assembly specially elected to draft a new constitution officially opens on 4 July.
  • Chile has an opportunity to build a more inclusive growth model and settle the political disaffection that exploded into major unrest in late-2019.
  • However, political fragmentation, anti-status quo sentiment, parallel elections, and high expectations all inject uncertainty into the process, potentially impairing the outcome.

The gender-equal assembly, which has 155 members, will have nine months to draft the new constitution, with a single three-month optional extension if necessary. After the new constitution is complete, there will be a ratifying referendum. All constitutional articles will require two-thirds approval in the assembly – a feature designed to ensure compromise and consensus. No single group has a one-third bloc of votes. The assembly is divided along the following lines:

  • The governing center-right Chile Vamos (CV) coalition has 37 seats.
  • Apruebo Dignidad , which combines the left-wing Broad Front (FA) and Communists (PC), has 28 seats.
  • Lista del Apruebo , which represents the traditional center-left, has 25 seats.
  • The Lista del Pueblo (People’s List), an anti-status quo bloc that arose out of the 2019 protests, has 26 seats; the group has no clear leadership structure and is already combining with indigenous assembly voters in loose group going as Voceria de los Pueblos.
  • Indigenous members representing ten ethnicities (dominated by the Mapuche) total 17 seats.
  • There are 22 independents, mostly activists, 11 of whom are organized as a sub-bloc known as the Non-Neutral Independents (INN).

This level of fragmentation makes it difficult to predict voting patterns, though clearly the assembly is tilted towards change. The assembly will mainly focus on expanding and improving state social welfare provision, while enshrining new rights and guarantees. Surveys suggest there is public support for continued Central Bank autonomy, while property rights are also unlikely to be under threat. There will be a big focus on pensions, with the emergence of a state-run pension system highly likely. Political decentralization is also likely as part of a shift to a “pluri-national” state. The “bigger” the constitution, the greater the chance of later judicial wrangles over overlapping provisions or inconsistencies. How a new social contract is to be funded is also unclear. There is a double-sided risk to this: that the new constitution either generates major new fiscal pressures or that it fails to meet public expectations.

While issues of substance are clearly of most significance going forward, issues of form are more prominent now. To add to the assembly’s fragmentation, the general lack of political experience of assembly members also complicates any attempt to predict the direction of key debates. The Lista del Pueblo is a case in point. This group also appears to have internal differences; some of its members have rejected dealing with the CV, while others talk about finding common ground with the center-right. Nor is it automatic that the Lista del Pueblo will align with the FA-PC Apruebo Dignidad bloc because the group largely sees itself as against all political parties.

A sign of the level of resistance to the status quo among assembly members is that the 4 July opening of the assembly will not involve President Sebastian Pinera, congressional leaders, or other dignitaries such as armed forces chiefs – all of whom might be expected to attend such a symbolically important event. There have also been wrangles over budgets, other practical arrangements, and the general administration of the assembly. These mostly look like attempts to score points against an unpopular government. More radical assembly members’ demand that those arrested during the 2019 unrest and still in detention are “political prisoners” who must be pardoned should be seen in the same light.

All of this reveals how the existence of the assembly creates an uncomfortable new political setup as power drains away from the executive and outgoing Congress and towards the assembly in the coming months. This dynamic will not stop with the November/December elections because whoever is elected president will take office alongside a new legislature (in March 2022) without a clear understanding of the basis of their power; for example, could the new constitution mandate a switch to a semi-presidential regime?

How the assembly ensures its rules are followed is also not entirely clear. The PC, which did not sign the November 2019 cross-party agreement to set in motion the constitutional re-write, has never believed in the two-thirds rule. More radical assembly members also want rallies and demonstrations to accompany the constitutional debates. For a process that was meant to channel protestors’ demands and restore the political system’s battered legitimacy, this is both counter-intuitive and risky if it means the debate to lay down a legal model of political, social, and economic organization for the next 20-30 years is subject to intimidation and demagoguery on the streets. The assembly leadership, whose election is the first agenda item once the body is set up, will be crucial to ensuring the assembly works smoothly and without undue outside interference.

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