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How to write a new constitution for a divided and unequal Chile

By Daniela Mohor W.

Elisa Loncón, a Chilean linguist, grew up in a “ruka,” a traditional wood and straw hut where the Indigenous Mapuche people live in rural areas of south-central Chile. She went to school in the nearest city, where she was the only Indigenous child in her class and had to endure daily discrimination. But giving up the opportunity for education was not an option: her mother dropped out of school in the third grade, tired of walking long hours barefoot to reach her classroom, while her father didn’t learn to read until he was 17. They wanted better for her.

Today, Loncón, 58, has a master’s degree and two PhDs. She is also one of the 155 members of the country´s new constituent assembly charged with drafting the new bill of rights.

After more than a year of social turmoil and popular discontent, Chile is entering a new stage. In October 2019, a metro fare increase sparked massive protests and riots along the country, forcing conservative President Sebastián Piñera to agree to a referendum on rewriting the constitution inherited from General Augusto Pinochet´s bloody dictatorship. As a result, last October, over 78% of Chilean voters approved the constitutional change and last month, they cast their ballots again to pick the members for a constituent assembly.

This Sunday, this assembly has its first official session, kicking off a process that should last up to a year and produce a text that will be ratified through a new plebiscite. This is historic not only because it symbolically puts an end to the legacy of Chile’s authoritarian regime. It is also a rare opportunity for any country to establish new guidelines for the 21st century.

Chile’s constitutional assembly is expected to try to limit the privileges of an elite with a dominant hold on political power, that still acts as an oligarchy. At the center of the constitutional debate will be whether to eliminate an existing section that regulates the power of the State to develop entrepreneurial activities — which most Chileans believe would lead to new social welfare policies. Most assembly members also aim to promote higher civic participation and better protection of the environment in the new constitution.

Unprecedented diversity and gender parity

Since it was elected, Chile´s constitutional assembly has drawn attention across Latin America both for its political, racial, and cultural diversity — and for the uncertainty surrounding it. Conservatives worry it won’t be able to generate a balanced bill of rights in a country where the voice of those who had felt marginalized has grown louder.

The composition of the assembly is undoubtedly a game-changer for politics in Chile, with 155 members who on balance reflects Chileans´ strong rejection of the established political class: The center-left and right-wing coalitions that have shared power since the return to democracy in 1990 both took a serious blow, obtaining only 16% and 24% of the seats respectively. Independents and newcomers from left-wing political parties and social movements in contrast have had their hour of glory, gathering 60% of the votes.

“There is a lot of uncertainty around the process because you have a group of people who are not professional politicians, are somewhat unexperienced and unpredictable. It’s hard to know to what extent they´re willing to compromise”, says Oliver Stuenkel, Professor of International Relations at Fundaçao Getulio Vargas (FVG) in Sao Paulo and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But I couldn’t think of a more democratic and inclusive way of doing it,” he adds.

Loncón is a good example of this assembly´s diversity. She is both a woman and Indigenous: two groups that have found new influence in the constitutional process. Chile´s convention is the first in the world to have gender parity (77 members are women) and the first in the country´s history to include designated seats (17) for Indigenous representatives.

It also includes environmentalists, feminists, members of the LGBTQ+ community and Chileans from across the social spectrum. Lawyers, political scientists, engineers, and historians will coexist with social activists, stay-at-home mothers, and school bus drivers, among others. The average age of the constituents is 44. Many of them took part in the October 2019 protests.

Chile’s current constitution was written under the influence of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman´s neoliberal model. Despite its many amendments, a majority of Chileans consider it to be too free-market and blame it for the country´s stark inequalities.

According to the World Inequity Lab, a research center focusing on the study of income and wealth distribution worldwide, Chile is the most unequal country in Latin America with the top 10% concentrating 60% of the average national income. It´s a reality most Chileans are weary of. In 2020, the “Encuesta Bicentenario” (Bicentennial Poll) that has been measuring cultural indicators yearly since 2010, showed that 77% of Chileans believe there is a “big conflict” between rich and poor. In this context, many see the new constitution as the solution.

Chile is opening up to new political actors. We were called to write something different,” says Loncón.

Tomás Laibe is a 30-year-old political scientist and LGBTQ+ activist who was elected to the assembly in the southern city of Puerto Aysén. He is a member of the Socialist Party who believes his generation is transforming the way politics is done. The dominating elite used to making top-down decisions and protecting its own economic interests, is being quashed, he says.

“This is the first time that institutional politics resembles the real Chile. We won´t have men talking about women´s issues, straight people discussing sexual diversity or white people talking about the needs of Indigenous communities. We will do it ourselves because we are better represented today”, he adds.

The political disillusionment is real. According to the “Encuesta Bicentenario”, in 2020 only 10% of Chileans trusted the government and the figure plummets to 1% when it comes to the House of Parliament.

Finding consensus

There is still much uncertainty around the outcome of this process.

The assembly is notedly left-leaning and, so far, members on the other side of the political spectrum have been absent in the debate. CNN contacted five constituents of the right-wing coalition, but all declined to comment. Until the October referendum, most of the coalition had campaigned against changing the constitution.

But it’s not just left vs. right. Many assembly members come from groups engendered by social movements that came together for electoral purposes only; they are far from thinking alike. Even within parties, consensus is not a given.

“The different groups are not cohesive and even when the members of more established political parties try to reach agreements within their cohort, dissident voices rise”, says Patricio Fernández, a journalist and writer from the center-left, who was elected as an independent in one of Santiago´s districts.

In the past month, constituents have virtually met to get to know each other. Even at this early stage, tensions emerged when 34 members decided to rally as a group called “Vocería de los Pueblos” (Voice of the People) stating that they refused to abide by the rules for the convention, that parties from both sides of the political spectrum had agreed on before the referendum.

Vocería de los Pueblos called for “popular sovereignty” and demanded the release of political prisoners, among other things, prompting much criticism. Yet since then, its numbers have only grown, with 11 more constituents joining.

“This whole process is full of nuances,” says Fernández. “I didn´t like the sectarian tone of the Vocería de los Pueblos´ statement, because we need to build a constitution upon dialogue not imposition, but when you talk to them individually, they are far less radical than it appears.”

Elisa Giustinianovich, a 36-year-old chemical engineer who defines herself as an ecofeminist activist, is a member of “Vocería de los Pueblos.” She lives in the southernmost region of Chile and was very active during the 2019 protests. She insists that the statement wasn´t an ultimatum and regrets the “overreaction” it provoked in the media, and among right and center-left politicians.

“They called us everything: fractious, antidemocratic, coup plotters. It was brutal,” she says.

The next few weeks will be crucial to see whether the assembly members are truly open to dialogue. Conservatives fear the constitutional process will degenerate into a populist path for one leader to consolidate executive power, as has occurred in Bolivia and Venezuela. But experts say that’s unlikely; Claudia Heiss, a political science PhD and author of the book “¿Por qué necesitamos una nueva constitución?” (Why do we need a new constitution?), doesn´t consider it a possibility.

“In Chile we´re seeing an institutional response to a social uprising and its demands. It´s unprecedented in Latin America to have a process that starts as a revolution and turns into a convention with limited duties”, she says.

Numbers alone could force the different political sectors to find consensus, as none possess the two-thirds majority required to approve a bill nor the one-third to veto. Plus there is common ground to work on: Most constituents have shown they are willing to move away from free market-oriented public policies in areas such as health, education, and pensions.

Perhaps most importantly, if the convention succeeds in writing a constitution that satisfies the needs of modern Chileans, it could have a big impact on the rest of Latin America.

“The region is rudderless right now. There is this never-ending cycle of instability, popular discontent, protests and the emergence of new leaders who propose change then disappoint,” says Stuenkel.

“If Chile does well, it has the potential of becoming a country that sets an example for others to follow.”

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