Chile Confounds

It happened again. Chilean elites have twice been confounded in the past year. First, by the resounding vote on 25 October to draft a new constitution, driven by the popular anger that had built up over three decades inside the country’s neoliberal pressure cooker. Second, by the surge of independent candidates in the elections for the Constitutional Convention on 15 May. For several reasons, there had been a virtual consensus among pundits that the Convention would be monopolized by party politics: the electoral rules which favoured candidates who run in lists (benefiting traditional parties and coalitions); the lack of funding and airtime allotted to independents; the numerous opinion polls predicting less than 1% of the vote would go to non-party candidates; the negative effects of the pandemic on turnout. The Convention, they predicted, would end up looking very similar to the current Congress, only with more women and indigenous peoples due to gender parity rules and reserved seats. Because a two-thirds supermajority was needed to approve all articles of the new constitution – a rule imposed in a backdoor agreement between the party leaderships – there was a palpable sense of relief. The electoral process, they thought, had managed to tame the constituent power that erupted during the popular uprisings of late 2019.  

The two-day election in mid-May saw 1,373 candidates competing for 155 seats. Despite President Piñera’s single-digit approval rating, the most conservative projections had given at least 51 seats to Vamos por Chile, the electoral bloc of the right-wing governing coalition plus the far-right pro-Pinochet Partido Republicano. The opposition coalition, which ruled the country for most of the past three decades as the Concertación, was also forecast to win just over a third of the vote. This would have given the two dominant coalitions (which have ruled Chile since the return to democracy) the ability not only to block new constitutional articles, but also to pass provisions that would entrench the structures of the dictatorship era. Projections put Apruebo Dignidad, the electoral pact composed of Frente Amplio (the ‘new left’ coalition born out of the 2011 student movements), the Communist Party, and other small regional left parties, at around 16%. Independents were expected to get between zero and seven seats, barely reaching 5%.

In the end, independent candidates won 35% of the seats. It was the worst electoral result for right-wing parties since the municipal elections of 1971. Although Vamos por Chile is still the largest coalition, it won only 40 seats, or 26% of the vote. That’s just four points higher than the votes cast in the October plebiscite for the option – ‘rechazo’ – that rejected changing the Constitution, and 11 seats short of unilateral veto power. The greatest losers, however, were the parties of the former Concertación, which came in fourth place, winning only 25 seats, or 16% of the vote. The electoral alliance of the new left and the Communists performed slightly better than expected, securing 18% of the seats.

The biggest surprise was the strong results of the Lista del Pueblo (‘People’s List’), which comprised 163 independents. Of these, 27 were elected, making them the third strongest bloc in the Convention with 17.4% of seats. Many of their candidates were prominent figures in the 2019 protests that forced the constitutional plebiscite – such as Tía Pikachú, a nursery teacher who dressed in a bright yellow Pokémon costume to face down water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets in Plaza Dignidad, and Pelao Vade, a leukaemia patient who led marches against exorbitant medical bills. While the Lista del Pueblo candidates all have a broadly anti-patriarchal, anti-neoliberal and pro-democracy orientation, they did not have a unified platform nor internal democratic decision-making procedures in place before the elections. It is yet to be seen whether these 27 independents will be able to rally around a common project and vote as a bloc. Another non-partisan list that performed better than expected was Independientes No Neutrales (‘Non-Neutral Independents’), composed mainly of intellectuals and professionals from the world of NGOs and foundations, which secured 11 seats. The strong showing of grassroots activists and progressive intellectuals contrasts with the weak performance of trade unionists and representatives of more established social movements. Luis Mesina, former vice president of the CUT (Central Workers Union), ran in the Social Movements List with the support of more than 200 organizations, but nevertheless got only 2% of the vote in his district. Candidates from the LGBT community also won only eight seats (5%), despite the heightened visibility of their movement since the 2019 rebellion.  

Behind these auspicious electoral results, which deprived the establishment of veto power, a deep legitimacy crisis is still lurking. About 50% of eligible voters cast their ballot in the plebiscite that initiated the constituent process, while only 43% went to the polls this time to select representatives. More than 1 million people decided to stay home, despite the great variety of candidates and platforms. This decrease cannot be explained away as a ‘pandemic effect’, as infections and hospitalizations were high on both occasions. Rather, it reflected the nature of the vote: while the referendum was a unique exercise of constituent power, the subsequent elections were viewed as part of a more routine political process which is widely perceived as rigged.

In order to make it onto the ballot, unaffiliated candidates had to get hundreds of people to support them – or up to several thousand in the most populous districts. Political parties, by contrast, were assigned slots in relation to their previous electoral results. So, while the former were busy going door to door, the latter were designing their slates and contacting popular independent candidates to co-opt them into the official party lists. The unequal playing field was even more obvious in the media, where candidates running as independents were given 30 seconds of national airtime a day, while parties and lists ran high-definition campaign broadcasts that lasted for several minutes.

On top of this, the fraudulent activities of the traditional parties contributed to the population’s apathy. In 2017, following several high-profile political corruption cases during the second term of Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, a special commission recommended all political parties revalidate their membership rolls to prove the true extent of their social base. A law was passed giving each party a one-year period to re-register its members. Almost all of them, including the Communists, struggled to gather the requisite number of signatures, and therefore were on-track to be formally disbanded. They would cease to exist as political entities and be unable to run candidates for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Yet, after successfully lobbying the electoral commission to relax the requirements and allow the registration of members through non-secure methods, the parties were able to double and even triple their rolls within a month. Given that the majority of the Chilean political establishment participated in this fraud, investigations were swiftly buried. Then, in late 2020, a number of candidates attempted to run as independents and found out they had been registered as members of a political party without their consent. A month before the election, videos started to circulate on social media denouncing the chicanery of the mainstream parties. Alberto Herrera, spokesman for the Lista del Pueblo, raised the issue on a national talk show shortly before the polls opened. If this emboldened some to vote for independents, it also exacerbated popular disenchantment with electoral politics. Ultimately, the combination of low turnout, proportional representation, and multiple candidates and lists per district meant that 80% of those who will write the new constitution were elected with less than 10% support among those who voted (or 4% of eligible voters overall).

Therefore, even if the recent elections were ‘free and fair’ on paper, the process has a precarious legitimacy. Recognizing the need to increase popular participation in the constitutional process, independent representatives are almost unanimous in their support for designing new democratic mechanisms for the Convention. So far, the national media has suggested a number of performative gestures to regain the trust of voters: an itinerant Convention that meets in a different region each month, or a mandate that forces representatives to return to their constituencies and ‘gather voices’. Yet more substantive measures to formalize the relationship between the Convention and the general public are also gaining traction. These will be debated in its first meeting on 5 July, which will determine the internal rules and procedures of the institution. There are at least three binding mechanisms under consideration: plebiscites, citizen initiatives, and constituent cabildos. These are aimed at overriding possible conservative vetoes in the Convention and allowing ordinary people to participate in its decision-making. Some are proposing that articles that have majority support but cannot reach the two-thirds threshold should be automatically put to a national plebiscite. Yet, considering that less than half the population turns out to vote, there is a danger that referenda could be used strategically for anti-democratic purposes. Plebiscites are typically organized from the top down: those that participate often do so out of loyalty to established parties and leaders, and the choice of question can dramatically skew the results. As illustrated by Proposition 8 in California or the face-covering ban in Switzerland, ‘bottom-up’ democratic initiatives can also be exploited by well-funded conservative groups to pass reactionary proposals.

In contrast to the plebiscitarian model – which sees citizens only as individual voters, incapable of collective deliberation – the grassroots constituent process that began with the spontaneous organization of neighbourhood assemblies and cabildos in late 2019 has already been enacting alternative forms of direct democracy. Such groups managed to elect a few delegates (as opposed to representatives) to the Convention, along with a handful of mayors and city councillors. In District 6, which comprises the water-deprived territories in the coastal region of Valparaiso, two local activists have been sent to the Convention: Lisette Vergara, a history teacher associated with the Lista del Pueblo, and Carolina Vilches, a feminist campaigner who ran in the Apruebo Dignidadlist. Both are working with elected officials in municipal government to protect the popular constituent process, and are developing proposals that would make decisions reached in cabildos binding at the local level, radically devolving democratic power. These community organizers are not alone. Similar experiments in deliberative democracy are being refined by a sprawling network of Chilean activists. The extent of their imbrication with the Convention will determine the extent of its success.

To reach the two-thirds threshold of 104 votes and approve participatory mechanisms in the Convention’s regulations, a grand alliance of independents, indigenous peoples, the new left, Communists, socialists, and progressive liberals will be needed. While such a coalition is certainly within reach, it could prove difficult to assemble since parts of the traditional left see plebiscites as the optimum vehicle for advancing a radical programme. They remain reluctant to give binding power to the cabildos. This split may yet allow the mainstream parties to undermine the radical potential of a new constitution. Yet, if the left can unite around the idea that the people themselves must determine their future, then the Convention would make history by recognizing popular autonomous institutions and allowing them to legally exercise constituent power. This would mark an unprecedented breakthrough for the plebeian classes, whose overhaul of the political system designed by Pinochet could definitively alter the place of the Chilean people within the country’s representative institutions.

Read on: Manuel Riesco, ‘Chile: A Quarter of a Century on’, NLR 1/238.