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Jaime Bellolio, former Chilean minister: ‘The Republican voters never wanted the constitutional process in the first place’

The leader of the Independent Democratic Union, a major conservative political party in Chile, analyzes the relationship between his bloc, the traditional right and the far-right Republican Party led by José Antonio Kast

Jaime Bellolio
Jaime Bellolio in Santiago, ChileCristobal Venegas
Antonieta de la Fuente

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For the past year-and-a-half, Jaime Bellolio, the former spokesperson for the second administration of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera (2018-2022), has no longer been in the political trenches. Today, as director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at Andrés Bello University, the analyzes — from a greater distance — the long-term democratic process that Chile is going through.

In his interview with EL PAÍS, which takes place in a mall cafeteria in the district of Vitacura, in eastern Santiago, the former legislator from the traditional right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) offers up his thoughts on the direction of Chilean politics. “Being able to watch the soccer game from the stands — and sometimes being invited to play — isn’t the same as being permanently on the field. I’m not going to judge those [who are on the inside]. Nowadays, doing politics is very difficult.”

During the conversation, he sips coffee and water. The commercial engineer from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile chose the location of the interview, as it’s close to the highway. When the discussion concludes, he needs to rush to catch his flight to Buenos Aires. In the Argentine capital, he will be accompanying former President Piñera at a meeting of other former right-wing Latin American leaders — the second meeting of the Freedom and Democracy Group — in which Bellolio will moderate a panel.

Of those among the Chilean right, Bellolio is, perhaps, the closest person to incumbent left-wing President Gabriel Boric. They met when they both served as deputies in Congress. To this day, they maintain a trusting friendship. “We’re constantly having conversations with the president,” Bellolio confesses, in a week where Chile Vamos, the coalition of the traditional right-wing parties, has aligned itself with the extreme-right Republican Party in the plenary session of the Council that’s tasked with drafting a new Constitution.

Jaime Bellolio, photographed in Santiago, Chile, on September 21, 2023.
Jaime Bellolio, photographed in Santiago, Chile, on September 21, 2023. Cristobal Venegas (© CRISTOBAL VENEGAS)

Question. How is Chile doing after September 11, the 50th anniversary of the coup?

Answer. Unfortunately, we have more divisions than 10 years ago. I think it’s a missed opportunity… conflicts that were once carried out in whispers have surfaced. We can say that, in Chile today, there’s a deep conviction about defending human rights and valuing democracy… [but this must involve] the elimination of any vestige of justifying violence as a legitimate means of conducting politics. There also has to be a commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law. Fifty years later, the coup can no longer be justified. And this reflection — if it had been done in a more careful manner — could have been embraced by a wider majority.

Q. Some believe that the government has strained relations in the country. Do you agree?

A. The government has missed an opportunity by constantly zigzagging in its course. It’s as if the president knows that he has a duty towards the construction of a different kind of social democracy — a Chilean-style social democracy — but he has also moved towards the Communist Party. So, instead of charting a path between democratic socialism and the Communist Party, he lurches between the two sides. And this only increases the uncertainty that we’re living through today, with the Constitutional Council, the aftermath of the pandemic and other issues.

Q. And what has happened on the right?

A. On the right, everything is more mixed up. It’s difficult to come to a diagnosis and form a common political movement, which is, of course, a consequence of the rupture in the country. My fear is that — as politics moves further away from solving citizens’ problems — the space for populism and demagoguery is growing, which in Latin America tends to be authoritarian.

Q. What role does the Republican Party play in the Constitutional Council? In the May elections, José Antonio Kast’s party won 23 of the 50 seats.

A. The Republican Party has a problem: it got too many votes. Their original logic was more for the group to have veto power over a new Constitution… not writing power. However, now that is the case, they’ve had to follow a different strategy.

Q. If the Republicans call for a total rejection of a new Constitution in the December referendum, how do you see that playing out?

A. Firstly, the Republican voters never wanted the process in the first place. Secondly, there’s another phenomenon that we’re seeing all over Chile: the policy of very short-term politics, which became much more pronounced after the 2019 social riots and the subsequent pandemic. In a study we did at Andrés Bello University, people told us that, in the face of current fragility, in the face of the perception of permanent risk, what they do is take refuge in their family, in their communities, in their home and in their traditions. And, when they project themselves into the future, they don’t think more than three months ahead. When that happens — deep down, when you feel that your future has been kidnapped — you only have space for everyday life. And that’s where people are dealing with problems such as a lack of public safety, low economic growth, unemployment and the rising cost of living.

Q. And the Republican Party, you say, is tuning in to those short-term emergencies?

A. It has done so very successfully. There’s a reason that during the Constitutional Council elections in May, the Republicans campaigned on the issue of public safety. While the Constitution obviously has to have a section on security, it’s not going to be able to solve the current aspects of insecurity facing citizens. So, if there’s no medium or long-term vision, then there’s no space for a new Constitution, no space for politics and no space for compromise. There’s only space for confrontation. I believe that this is a disease that politics is experiencing. Social media is only amplifying it.

Q. If the Republicans have the ambition to win the general elections in 2025, they’re playing a dangerous game with that logic, aren’t they?

A. And that’s the paradox. While it’s most likely that the next government will be from the opposition — from the right — closing the constitutional cycle would offer [the party] the best conditions to be able to govern in the next term. The same goes for pension reform (which has stalled), or making as much progress as possible on the security agenda. There are several factors that would make what you want to govern more governable. However, since we’re living in a short-term world, the idea of “let me get elected first and then you’ll see how I govern” wins.

Q. This past week, a controversial norm was voted on by the Constitutional Council: the “rights of the unborn.” The opinion of the left is that this could open the door to repealing abortion rights in Chile (abortion is legal only if the life of the mother is at risk, if the fetus is not viable and in the cases of rape during the first 12 weeks of gestation). What’s your opinion?

A. I’m not an expert on this, but it seems to me that abortion in three situations — which I voted against — is something that shouldn’t be reversed. But the mere approval [of this wording] — that the Constitution protects the life of the unborn — doesn’t seem to me to be a way of reversing what has already been approved in Chile regarding abortion.

Q. Is the left exaggerating?

A. No, but I think there are some people on the left who are looking for excuses to get out of this process. Then, there are others who legitimately have their doubts, and this is another way of negotiating, of noticing certain problems, so that the counterparty realizes how delicate the situation is. But it’s absurd to think that a Constitution can be approved only by one political sector. We already saw this mistake in the previous [failed 2021] process. You cannot try to close the constitutional cycle without there being a majority that agrees on the rules that will govern us in the future.

Bellolio, pictured in the Santiago district of Vitacura.
Bellolio, pictured in the Santiago district of Vitacura. Cristobal Venegas

Q. Many have criticzed the Chile Vamos coalition, which includes three traditional center-right and right-wing parties, of blending in with the far-right Republicans…

A. I’d hope that this isn’t the case. You have to remember that several of those vote were cast in opposition, that is to say against the policy. We must reach out to the five million new voters, since many are completely disinterested and have no faith in politics. Whenever Chile Vamos has won an election, it’s because it has had very clear leadership that has managed to overcome internal differences. Today, we’re not at that stage. The Republicans do have it but in Chile Vamos, it remains to be seen.

Q. Is everyone in Chile Vamos convinced that Evelyn Matthei, the current mayor of Providencia and the runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections, is the leader they’re looking for?

A. Without a doubt, today, she has the best chance. I think she’s a very good candidate. But everyone knows that it will also depend on the outcome of the coming months, such as on what happens in December, when the Chilean people vote on a new Constitution.

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