Can the Chilean constitutional convention defuse the discontent of the people?
THE PRESIDENTIAL The elections scheduled for November will be unlike any other in Chile since the restoration of democracy in 1989. Part of the reason is that the main candidates are relatively new faces and the Concertación, the central alliance. left which dominated most of this period, is no more. But it is above all because the winner will initially coexist with a convention which draws up a new constitution and which could decide to shorten the normal presidential mandate by four years. This is all because Chile is still picking up the pieces after an explosion of massive and sometimes violent protests in late 2019 that rocked what had been one of the most stable and seemingly prosperous countries in Latin America.
At the heart of the protests was anger over reduced opportunities and inadequate and unequal access to healthcare, pensions and education. The convention was offered by a discredited political class in November 2019 to provide a peaceful outcome to a dangerous conflict. It seems certain to move Chile to the left. The question is how far.
The initial response seemed like a long road. In an election for the convention in May, in which only 43% of the electorate voted, the far left won 55 of 155 seats (of which 17 were reserved for representatives of indigenous peoples). The election was a defeat for both the old Concertación (25 seats) and the right (37). Many representatives are, nominally at least, independents in an election where being new, young and untested by politics as usual was a winning formula.
Now that the convention has sat for almost three of its maximum 12 months and has accomplished little beyond approving its own rules this week, it is starting to moderate. A far-left group imploded, its credibility shattered when one of its leaders admitted that his claim of being a person with cancer denied proper health care was false. Another split: the Front Large (FA, for his initials in Spanish) fell out with the Communist Party. Poll shows agreement approval drops to 30%.
But his serious work has only just begun. “We are discussing issues that touch deeply rooted interests and power centers,” says Patricia Politzer, a centrist independent representative. “It was never going to be easy.” It is part of a large negotiating nucleus that is beginning to emerge. They are likely to become increasingly influential as the convention tackles major issues. First, it is certain to define as constitutional rights a long list of expensive things, such as pensions and housing. The question is whether these will be enforceable in court or left to secondary laws. The second question is whether Chile will move to a semi-parliamentary system, as part of an effort to spread power. Third, the new document seems certain to impose stricter environmental standards. Much will depend on whether the final text embodies a sense of fiscal realism and a recognition of the need for a vigorous market economy to generate prosperity and finance better public services.
The presidential election may give a clearer idea of Chile’s change of course. The favorite is Gabriel Boric, 35 FA leader. He beat a Communist in a primary. Its economic program is radical. But he seeks to make Chile something more like Germany than Venezuela, with European levels of taxes and green investments, state-owned enterprises and industrial policy. Whether this can work quickly in Chile is doubtful.
Mr Boric could face center-right Sebastián Sichel in the inevitable second round in December. But alternatively, it could feature hard right-wing José Antonio Kast. Mr Kast appeals to the large silent minority which has been frightened by the violence of the protests and fears the instability. If he won, he would surely run up against convention.
The election will show whether the convention represents a snapshot of a moment of rage in 2019 that is starting to fade away (in part due to the pandemic), or whether it’s part of an ongoing demand for sweeping change. There is evidence for both possibilities. A recent poll by the Center for Public Studies, a think tank, showed an improvement in the outlook on Chilean democracy and crime, displacing pensions as the main public concern. Only 39% now say they fully support the protests, compared to 55% in the same poll in December 2019. But discontent remains. “People are off the streets now because they are placing their hopes in the convention,” Ms. Politzer said. The presidential election will therefore be a battle between hope and fear.
Correction (October 1, 2021): A previous version of this article stated that the maximum duration of Chile’s constitutional convention is 15 months, instead of 12. Sorry.
This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition under the title “Between Hope and Fear”