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Why Chile’s plans for a new Constitution are causing headaches for the government

The left-wing administration of Gabriel Boric is concerned the May 7 vote to elect the members of the Constitutional Council will hand the right a sweeping majority

A demonstration against Chile's proposed new Constitution at the Pablo Neruda amphitheater in Santiago, on September 1, 2022.
A demonstration against Chile's proposed new Constitution at the Pablo Neruda amphitheater in Santiago, on September 1, 2022.Matias Basualdo (AP)

The Chilean government of Gabriel Boric is realistic about its prospects at Sunday’s election, when 15.1 million people will vote to elect the 50 councilors who will draft a new proposed Constitution. The current Constitution was drawn up behind closed doors during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Last year, a Constitutional Convention proposed a progressive new charter, with an emphasis on gender equality, environmental issues and recognition of indigenous peoples. But it failed to win support, with 62% of voters voting against it in the September national plebiscite.

Unlike on that occasion, when the left-wing government openly rallied for the document to be approved, this time it has decided to keep a strategic distance from the vote. The goal of this approach is to ensure that Sunday’s ballot is not seen as a referendum on the government, whose approval ratings are floundering at around 30%. Even so, the far-right and the traditional right are expected to win a majority of seats on the Constitutional Council.

More than 350 candidates are running to be elected on Sunday. These are divided into five different political groups. But the alliance that makes up the Chilean government is competing in two separate coalitions: Unity for Chile, which is made up of Boric’s party Social Convergence, the Communist Party, Broad Front (FA), the Socialist Party and the Liberal Party; and Everything for Chile, which is made up of the Party for Democracy (PPD), the Radical Party and Christian Democratic Party (PDC), the latter of which is not in the government.

The Chilean government is concerned how it will fare at Sunday’s vote, given it is running in two separate groups. According to analyst Pepe Auth, Unity for Chile is set to come in second spot after the right-wing coalition Safe Chile. This outcome would see it secure between 14 and 15 seats on the Constitutional Council. But there is also the possibility that the combined result from the two pro-government coalitions will be under 21 seats, the minimum required to have veto power on the body that will draft the new Constitution.

Gabriel Boric hablando por teléfono
President Boric speaks by phone inside La Moneda at the close of the plebiscite on September 4.Luis Hidalgo (AP)

The Chilean government believes Unity for Chile will secure 38% of the vote on Sunday — the same percentage who voted in favor of approving the progressive Constitution in September. This would give it 19 seats on the council, which is still two fewer than the 21 it needs. But it does not believe that achieving this result is impossible.

Challenge for the left

“Everything indicates that the May 7 election will not favorably change the situation for the Boric government. What’s more: its result — taking into account the current situation of the country in economic, political and social terms — is likely to fall short,” says Ernesto Ottone, a center-left essayist, who points out that the government is divided between the moderates of Broad Front and those of the Socialist Party and Communist Party. “This will probably mean a great uproar among the forces that support him, which do not make up one leftist force, but rather two orientations, two lefts. This would aggravate their differences in line with the readings of the electoral result.”

For Ottone, “the result will not be good for any of them, but whoever comes out better off will make a big deal of it.”

Chilean minister Álvaro Elizalde said that regardless of the result, government will persist in its efforts to dialogue with the different political forces. Last year, La Moneda — the seat of government — was slow to recognize that the proposed new Constitution would not be approved in the plebiscite. The resounding defeat was a huge blow for the government, which found itself in a kind of power vacuum, unable to move or speak.

For this reason, Elizalde has been trying to separate the outcome of Sunday’s vote from the future of the current administration. “The government has a clear mandate to address previous problems, such as inflationary pressure and security problems, as well as to make progress on demands such as, for example, a social security program through the pension reform. Obviously, the executive is going to continue to work on these matters. This is not going to change,” said the minister on Tuesday.

A Constitution that doesn’t unite the people

The government is not ruling out any surprises on Sunday. Unlike the plebiscite in September, the vote on May 7 is mandatory. This means that millions of people who do not always exercise their right to vote are likely to take part. It’s not clear where their preferences lie. What’s more, this time round, voters are not being asked whether they approve or disapprove a proposed Constitution. Instead, they are being asked to vote for candidates from political parties, which adds to the uncertainty. Although the mood in the country is one of apathy, Chile’s electoral authorities estimate that more than 12 million people will vote.

The Boric administration is clear that the outcome of the vote is unlikely to be good news for the left or the ruling coalition. There are even fears that the Republican Party, led by the far-right José Antonio Kast, may win the highest number of seats in the Constitutional Council, outperforming the traditional right-wing group Safe Chile.

If this were to happen, Safe Chile may decide to move further to the right. “One of the reasons for the rise of the Republican Party is that voters are moving away from the center-right. It stopped representing a lot of people, as well as offering a future. Moderation is not a goal in itself. This does not mean we aren’t looking at Kast’s project with a critical distance,” writes Rodrigo Pérez de Arce, a researcher at Chile’s Institute for Society Studies (IES).

In any case, the current climate in Chile is against the government — partly because of the plebiscite defeat in September and partly because of the security crisis in the country, which always affects those in power. Given this context, it’s possible that the two right-wing groups — Safe Chile and the Republican Party — could win three-fifths of the seats on the council, i.e. 30 spots. In this situation, the right would not need to negotiate with the left or the center-left. Indeed, the rightist bloc may have even more than 30 members, if the seats from the populist People’s Party are taken into account.

It’s a grim outlook for the government. The executive is concerned that the new Constitutional Council — which will be formed on June 7 — will draft a new charter that is the same or worse than the current Constitution, and which is then legitimized by a plebiscite that will take place in December. If the new draft Constitution again fails to be approved, the government is not planning to continue with its efforts to replace the Pinochet-era-document. The alternative in this case would be to carry out only partial reforms through Congress.

A new Constitution would be one of the main legacies of the Boric administration, but this goal is far from assured.

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