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Chile’s Constitutional Revolution

The 155 members of Chile’s new constitutional convention must cast aside everything they stand for in order to do their job well. A generation reared on direct participatory politics – whether via Twitter, on university campuses, or in the streets – now must build a representative democracy
Members of the electoral table count votes at a polling station during elections to choose mayors, councillors and a commission to rewrite the constitution in Santiago, on May 16, 2021. – Polls closed in Chile Sunday after two days of voting for a body of 155 people that will rewrite the country’s dictatorship-era constitution many blame for deep societal inequalities. (Photo by Rodrigo ARANGUA / AFP) (Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP via Getty Images)

A revolution is the overthrow of existing political arrangements. A successful uprising builds new and better ones. There have been many revolutions in Latin America, but few have succeeded. Can Chile buck that age-old trend?

If zeal to throw out the old and bring in the new is the standard, then Chile’s election of a constitutional convention earlier this month was revolutionary. In selecting the 155-member body that will write a new constitution – the result of a political deal to end the unrest and rioting that shook the country in 2019 – Chileans gave their current political establishment an embarrassingly diminished role.

The ruling conservative coalition behind President Sebastián Piñera had expected to win one-third of the seats, which would have enabled it to block sweeping constitutional changes. But it secured barely one-quarter. The center-left parties that have governed Chile for 24 of the last 30 years fared even worse and will control just one seat in six – fewer than a new alliance of the Communist Party and other far-left parties, and fewer than the People’s List, a motley assemblage of radical groups that grew out of the 2019 protests. Independent candidates – environmentalists, feminists, local leaders, and advocates of devolution to Chile’s regions – were the overwhelming winners.

The results mark a clear shift to the left, but the international media’s preferred narrative – that this was an electoral revolt against Chile’s so-called neoliberal economic model – is too simplistic. Among those failing to get a seat in the convention were the Communist Party member who runs Chile’s largest labor confederation, the former head of the national teachers’ union, and the leader of the hugely popular movement pushing to abolish the country’s privatized pension system. All three embody opposition to anything that smacks of market-based economics.

The election was about left versus right. But it was even more about young versus old, novel versus outdated, and autonomous versus institutional. Voters rejected not only the political and business elites, but also every other elite – academic, NGO, union, and media.

The good news is that the convention looks like the country. Half of its members are women. Indigenous peoples hold a sizeable block of seats. Predictably, there are many lawyers. But the body also includes schoolteachers, shop owners, veterinarians, dentists, a car mechanic, a deep-water diver, a professional chess player – and only one economist. Chile’s traditional political class, chock-a-block with the private school-educated offspring of politicians, does not look like that. If Chile’s political institutions had been suffering from a legitimacy deficit, a new constitution written by such a body should go a long way to plug that gap.

The bad news is that the 155 convention members must cast aside everything they stand for in order to do their job well. A generation reared on direct participatory politics – whether via Twitter, on university campuses, or in the streets – now must build a representative democracy. United in their distrust of political parties, they need to craft rules that allow parties to thrive. Tipsy with the elixir of absolute moral certitude, they now must create institutions where negotiation and compromise can take place.

At stake in the convention is nothing less than the nature of democracy. Latin Americans have been trying their hands at it for two centuries now, but have chalked up more failures than successes. Chile’s is the oldest and among the most stable in the region, but even there, decades of tranquility have been punctuated by civil wars, spasms of violence, and General Augusto Pinochet’s ferocious 17-year dictatorship. Moreover, many Chileans think that the democracy rebuilt in the three decades since the dictator was voted out of office is overcentralized and unresponsive to citizens’ demands.

The constitutional convention is a chance to right those wrongs. But building a better political system requires understanding the shortcomings of the old one.
In the presidential regimes common across Latin America, chief executives are elected directly by voters, serve a fixed term of office, and can influence the legislative agenda. Thus, on paper they have strong powers. Hence the talk, common in Chile and elsewhere, of ending “hyper-presidentialism.” But practice is very different from theory. Proportional electoral systems produce fragmented parliaments in which presidents seldom command a majority. Lame ducks from day one, they are unable to pass laws or deliver on their promises.

Furthermore, parties themselves are weak. Members of parliament are chosen under an “open list” system that prevents party bosses from rewarding loyal party members by placing them at the top of a “closed list” – common in European democracies – where they have a high probability of being elected. And candidate primaries, while supposedly great for accountability and internal party democracy, are terrible for party cohesion. A media-savvy outsider with exotic ideas or no ideas at all (think Donald Trump) can easily upstage the hard-working activist who has spent a quarter-century helping to build the party up from the grassroots.

Progressive politicians from the old parties and the independents and radicals who are now trying to displace them have one thing in common. Ask them why they are in politics, and they will all say they are proud to participate in a collective endeavor to defend the public interest – implicitly contrasting this calling with the individualism that markets presumably foster.

In fact, the opposite is true. Chilean parliamentarians are often described, tongue firmly in cheek, as single-owner business enterprises, forever switching allegiances and flip-flopping on policies when it profits them politically – whether by a lift in the polls or 15 minutes of social-media fame. New parties and movements break into splinter groups and factions the day after they are born. Anti-capitalists (but not only them) have brought into politics some of the worst habits of the capitalist culture they deplore.

If Chile’s constitutional revolution is to succeed and show the way forward for Latin America’s other democracies, all of that must change. The adolescent dream of direct democracy must give way to the lackluster adult reality of representative democracy. Independents must be willing to build institutions that enable parties to wield real power and give rise to governments that are strong enough to govern. Talk of collaborative endeavors must translate into the kind of public-spirited politics that focuses on the next generation, not just the next election. Can it happen? Perhaps. But don’t hold your breath.

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