Chileans are rapidly losing patience with the process of drafting a new constitution, fearing that a more sweeping, investor-friendly rewrite of the charter may take shape before a national referendum later this year.
The idea to write a 21st century constitution for the Latin American country was born out of a wave of popular anger over inequality and inadequate public services that erupted in October 2019 when protesters took to the streets of Chile to demand changes.
Now, nine months into the process, that idealism is clashing with the realities of the complex drafting process, alarming many Chileans.
Support for the overhaul of the constitution fell to 46% in April, the lowest level recorded by national pollster Cadem, as deliberations on the document enter a critical phase. A vote on the new constitution is scheduled for early September, which means that all points must be debated, approved and finalized by July.
“They seem to be legislating, not writing a constitution,” Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile, told the Financial Times. “It’s a shopping list, highlighting issues that polls don’t seem to be a top concern for most Chileans.”
Proposals presented so far, though not yet approved, include plans to nationalize the mining industry, legalize cannabis and abolish the separation of powers between the lower and upper houses of congress.
Lively debates broadcast live from inside the neoclassical convention building in downtown Santiago showed the amateurish and sometimes idealistic nature of the delegates, who range from teachers and doctors to indigenous leaders and social workers. For nearly two whole days in January, the group could not decide who to appoint as chair of the assembly.
“He feels disorganized right now,” Ricardo Montero, a lawyer and member of the Socialist Party assembly, told the Financial Times. But “a lot remains on the table”, he added, insisting that the transparent nature of the assembly and the diverse profile of its members are intrinsically valuable to the process.
“It feels like we’re crafting a new social contract, not a Magna Carta, written by people from all walks of life to live better together,” he added.
Ricardo Gonzalez Guyer, 69, has said he favors replacing Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution adopted under military rule, but worries about the process.
“I don’t like the format,” Guyer said of the 155-member body responsible for the rewrite. The assembly, made up of many political and independent unknowns, was elected by the population during the pandemic last May. “I will take the time to read the new draft very carefully before voting,” he added.
Delegate Felipe Harboe, a former senator who was part of the center-left coalition led by former President Michelle Bachelet, acknowledged that the process has a “leftist majority” that is not representative of the country as a whole. . Congress, elected last year with a higher turnout, is evenly split between left and right.
Signs of loss of confidence in the overhaul process are a blow to the leftist administration, which took office in early March.
President Gabriel Boric, 36, who represents a clean break with his 72-year-old conservative predecessor Sebastián Piñera, sees the overhaul of the constitution as an opportunity to enshrine his progressive political agenda.
Boric pledged to introduce greener and more inclusive growth by increasing the role of the state in the economy and gave his support to the convention which is due to complete the overhaul process by July this year.
But Boric has his own problems. A separate poll this month showed approval for the millennial leader slipped below 50% as the Chilean economy slowed amid rising inflation and rising interest rates.
Annual inflation in March hit 9.4%, the fastest pace since 2008, as costly oil imports hit prices. Growth projections for 2022 were revised down by the central bank in March to between 1% and 2%, from 11.9% last year.
Chileans will decide whether or not to adopt the constitution on September 4, when presidential elections were traditionally held before the 1973 military coup. If defeated, the 1980 constitution remains.
Patricio Navia, a political scientist at New York University, said the Boric administration wants to satisfy every constituency and achieve nearly every social goal promised to voters.
“Like a wish list for Santa Claus, there will be gifts for everyone, but ultimately it’s [the constitution] won’t decide anything,” Navia said. The big risk for Chile is that if the plethora of sometimes conflicting rights and rules are unclear, any foreign investment decision will be postponed, he said.
Business leaders are already worried about the prospects of steep tax hikes and tougher environmental controls on the mining industry. A major multinational mining company, which asked not to be named, said its executives feared future changes so much that a representative had been sent to Santiago to oversee the delicate overhaul process.
Analysts say part of the reason support for the convention is declining is that it is struggling to communicate effectively with voters. Opponents of the rewrite campaigned aggressively through the press and social media.
“This is just the beginning, but the government needs to start thinking seriously about rejecting it” and what comes next, Funk said. “Social protests [in 2019] never really disappeared and may well reappear.
How is Chile rewriting its constitution?
The assembly is made up of seven different committees, ranging from areas such as the environment and the judiciary to the political system.
Once a committee has approved a proposal by simple majority, it is sent to the plenary where a two-thirds majority is required for the article to be included in the final draft.
Rejected proposals can be amended before returning to the room for a second vote.
Chileans will vote within 60 days of finalizing the final draft in a mandatory plebiscite. The vote is set for September 4. In case of rejection, the constitution of 1980 remains.