Foreign Policy

Chilean voters have turned their backs on conventional coalitions. What’s subsequent?

May 17, 2021, 6:46 p.m.

In the mega-elections on May 15 and 16, Chilean voters elected 155 delegates to an assembly that will draft a new constitution to replace the country’s charter from the dictatorship. They also cast ballots for governors, mayors, and town councilors. Together, these elections will be the most momentous the country has held since its return to democracy in 1990.

Even without considering the results, it was already clear that Chile was taking a step in the right direction by drafting a new constitution and actively promoting inclusion: women will take half of the seats on the editorial committee, and the indigenous peoples of Chile are guaranteed to be represented.

Little else was guaranteed, however, as the results of this weekend’s polls show. Against a three-decade trend, voters turned away from traditional center-left and center-right coalitions and voted in significant numbers against challengers, including independents. Candidates who ran for no party won 48 seats with 99 percent of the vote. In addition, there will be another 40 candidates running as independents on party lists, and more than half of the assembly will be independents.

Independent candidates ran on a variety of platforms ranging from local interests to ending a variety of abuses (or “abuses”) in Chilean society. However, the candidates have one common denominator: they represent a bottom-up alternative to the stable, centrist coalitions that have ruled the country since its transition to democracy in 1990. They are likely to push for reforms that aim to decentralize power, redistribute wealth, and give the state a freer hand to intervene in Chile’s free market model – which has earned the South American country global fame or notoriety, depending on who you ask. Aside from increasing the size of the government, it is not clear that the delegates will agree on much else. With no single coalition winning a third of the seats – the minimum stake required to veto initiatives during the drafting process – the only guarantee for the assembly is heated debate.

The results came as a surprise to the traditional center-left and center-right coalitions that have usually taken turns choosing the country. Both coalitions received their lowest percentage of votes in recent history. The center-right party, hoping to win at least 52 seats – the number needed to veto initiatives – captured just 37 seats. The result was even worse for the parties that make up Chile’s traditional center-left bloc, which received 25 seats and fell short of a rival left-wing coalition, an alliance between the broad-front party and the Communist Party.

Although traditional party candidates fared slightly better in local races, the verdict is clear: Chilean politics appears to be heading for a new era of unpredictability in which political parties will play an increasingly less important role in shaping politics. This trend is likely to continue until November, when Chile votes on its next president. Independent or fringe candidates are likely to benefit from the decline of the mainstream parties to dominate the campaign season.

The election numbers confirmed what was already clear on site. For the past two years, the center-right government in Chile has struggled to regain support after waves of anti-establishment protests. This weekend’s mega-elections came after nationwide unrest that rocked the country in October 2019. Although the metro increased tariffs in the capital Santiago sparked the protests. The extent and intensity of the mobilizations reflected the deep dissatisfaction with the model of politics and economic development in the country. The roots of this dissatisfaction go deep.

After decades of political stability, Chilean democracy collapsed in 1973 when the military overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of then Chilean President Salvador Allende. From 1973 to 1990, Augusto Pinochet, the chief of the military, ruled the South American nation with an iron fist. His government oversaw state-sponsored killings and torture on a large scale and imposed a neoliberal economic model.

Pinochet also wrote a new constitution that would include his economic reforms and secure the political influence of his allies in the long run. Many would argue that it is, but the charter also contained the seeds for a return to democracy: it set 1988 as the date for a follow-up vote that would determine whether Pinochet should step down from power. Despite all odds, he lost and Chile returned to democracy. Since then, Chile has been home to enigmatic contrasts – remarkable economic and political stability to an increasingly disaffected public, many of whom viewed the Pinochet-era constitution as a straitjacket for democracy.

After the transition in 1990, the leading actors on Chile’s democratic stage became the center-left Concertación coalition, including many dissidents from the dictatorship, and a center-right coalition. The Concertación bloc ruled continuously from 1990 to 2010. His governments left the influence of the military behind, but retained many of the market-friendly measures introduced under Pinochet and took relatively moderate steps to build a stronger social safety net and redistribute income.

The result was GDP growth rates that exceeded those in most parts of Latin America, falling poverty rates and macroeconomic stability. But anger was brewing beneath the surface. High growth rates came at a price. Despite falling poverty, Chile became profoundly unequal and developed a yawning gap between the rich and the middle class. With a Gini coefficient of 0.46, Chile, a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, has the second highest income inequality in the group.

Meanwhile, establishment politicians on both left and right failed to advance policies that would ease the burden of rising cost of living associated with basics such as housing, transportation and medicine, which make the country’s middle class strong burdened. This kept them out of touch with ordinary voters, and mass partisanship and turnout decreased. The Centro de Estudios Públicos recently reported that barely 2 percent of Chileans trust political parties.

Although Chilean parties have promoted ideas rather than personalities since 1990 – a rarity in South America’s often personalized politics – it has become increasingly difficult for voters to tell the grand coalitions apart. The center-left received international praise for avoiding the consequences of populism and radicalism that regional neighbors Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela have been exposed to. Nevertheless, there were also far-reaching reforms of Pinochet’s model. In 2012, a leader in the Chilean Socialist Party said attempting to amend Pinochet’s 1980 constitution would mean handing a lead life jacket to Michelle Bachelet, who was seeking a second presidential mandate at the time.

Cue the protests of 2019. The scale was unprecedented. Rather than viewing mobilization as an opportunity for change, Sebastián Piñera, the country’s Conservative President, declared a state of emergency and deployed security forces, in which 36 protesters died, thousands of people injured and hundreds of people were blinded by rubber bullets. Less than a week before the protests broke out, Piñera described Chile as an “oasis” in Latin America. After the massive protests, the president declared that the country was “at war”. Both statements showed a deep separation from the voters. Unsurprisingly, Piñera has since become the least popular president since democratization, with a single-digit approval rating.

The government’s failed response to the protests forced politicians from across the ideological spectrum to finally propose a referendum to draft a new constitution. In the vote, which took place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020, the drafting of a new constitution through the convening of a constitutional convention was approved by 78 percent.

It will be difficult for the editorial board to find consensus, but the weak turnout over the weekend has shown that building a sense of legitimacy can be even more difficult. Although more than a million protesters took to the streets in 2019 to call for a new constitution, the turnout was barely over 40 percent – well below the turnout in elections to recast other Latin American constitutions in recent years. Ironically, disappointment with the status quo, which fueled calls for a constitutional revision, may have kept voters at home on election day as well.

However, observers should be careful about drawing parallels with other recent constitutional changes in Latin America. In 1999, then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez led the charge of replacing his country’s constitution in elections that excluded traditional parties. Ecuador and Bolivia followed in 2006 and 2007. But apart from reprimanding traditional parties, Chile’s constitutional moment has little to do with these earlier episodes. Chile’s independents lack a strong leader, making them unlikely to seek excessive presidential powers. They do not come from an organized social movement like the Bolivian Movement for Socialism, but from all areas of professional and political life. Instead of a government-led development approach that relies heavily on natural resources – the favorite recipe of Latin American left governments in the 2000s – Chile’s independents have promised to put the environment first and show more sensitivity to marginalized groups, especially Chile indigenous peoples. which were not recognized by the previous charter. The outcome of Chilean economic policy could go in many directions, according to observers. Just hours after the vote was counted, the country’s stock market saw the biggest drop since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020 as investors worried about the possibility of radical economic change.

The Chilean government could go in either of two directions from this political crossroads. The country could follow in the direction of its regional neighbor Uruguay – a country that also moved from military dictatorship to a truly inclusive, stable democracy in the 1980s, in which left and right parties have close ties to the electorate, but also control the office of trade peacefully. More ominously, Chile could be headed towards Peru, where established parties collapsed years ago, leaving in their place a political vacuum filled with turmoil.

The delegates of the convention now have a nine-month window in which to draft the new charter with the possibility of an extension of three months. What is happening inside the constituent assembly of Chile should give early signs of the direction the country is headed.

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