On Sunday, 4 September, the members of the Comando de los movimientos sociales para el Apruebo (Commando of Social Movements for Approval) were gathered at the headquarters of the Bata union in the centre of Santiago, a few steps from the emblematic Plaza Dignidad, the focal point of the major popular uprising of October 2019. The results of the national referendum to approve or reject the new constitutional text, drafted over the course of a year by the Constitutional Convention, a body elected by popular vote in May 2021, began to arrive at 18:00.
Frank Gaudichaud holds a PhD in political science and teaches Latin American Studies at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in Toulouse, France. He is a member of the editorial board of ContreTemps and a contributor to Jacobin.
Miguel Urrutia is a sociologist in the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Chile and a member of Izquierda Libertaria.
This article was published in collaboration with Jacobin América Latina. Translated by Juan Diego Otero and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
It soon became apparent that the “reject” vote would win, but no one anticipated such a resounding defeat. After months of mobilization, organizers had to face and accept the victory of the conservative sectors opposed to the constitutional proposal that sought nothing less than to put an end to the 1980 Constitution, drafted during the Pinochet dictatorship.
A Resounding Rejection
The result was overwhelming: the rejection camp had 61.88 percent of the votes, while approval had 38.12 percent with a turnout of more than 13 million voters (85.81 percent of the electorate), or 4.5 million more than in the second round of the presidential elections in December 2021, a rise that was mainly caused by the establishment of a compulsory voting system with automatic registration.
In the Magallanes region in the far south, where President Gabriel Boric’s family lives, the rejection camp won 60 percent of the votes — a personal defeat for the young leftist leader. In the north, approval was below 35 percent, and in the Araucanía region, where most of the Mapuche communities live, the “reject” vote was close to 74 percent. Not even in greater Santiago or Valparaíso — urban areas traditionally more prone to change and where several left-wing (including Communist) mayors were recently elected — was there a majority in favour of the new constitution: approval claimed a majority in only eight of the country’s 346 municipalities.
The right-wing and “centre” camps, which opposed the draft, were immediately shown by the media celebrating their success in some streets and squares in the wealthy neighbourhoods of Santiago. The extreme Right also expressed its satisfaction. Several conservative leaders were astonished by the extent of their victory, an improbable scenario two years ago, when Chile — the “oasis” and “showcase” of neoliberalism — seemed to be taking a new historical path marked by the October Rebellion.
The neoliberal elites have made several top-down attempts to patch up the huge cracks in the model and the political system’s crisis of legitimacy, which almost led to the impeachment of the billionaire president Sebastián Piñera. On 15 November 2019, almost all the parties in parliament signed the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution”. This divided the Frente Amplio (a left-wing coalition created in 2017) between those who argued that the agreement implied the necessary institutional channelling of the ongoing struggles and those who saw it as a way of deactivating these struggles. The mobilized sectors themselves described the agreement as the product of a new “concoction” of the parties because, among other reasons, it was signed while the popular movement was facing criminal repression from the Chilean state.
The fact is that on 19 December 2021, one of the architects of the Agreement, Gabriel Boric from the Frente Amplio and head of a coalition between his camp and the Communist Party, was elected president of Chile. This seemed to confirm the social will for change at the ballot box, even if it was on the basis of a very moderate programme and against Antonio Kast, an ultra-right-winger who represented a demand for “order” that had racist and xenophobic undertones for a large swathe of the population.
The alarm bells were already ringing, but a large sector of the Left seemed not to hear them. Previously, the powerful results of the 2020 referendum had indicated ample possibilities for socio-political transformation (78 percent of voters approved the idea of a new Fundamental Charter to bury the 1980 Constitution), despite the limits of a convention partly “regulated” by the old parties of the established Congress. At that time, other alarm bells were also ringing: almost half of all Chileans did not turn out to vote, particularly in the working-class neighbourhoods. But the momentum from October still seemed capable of asserting itself, to some extent, in the Constitutional Convention, with parity, seats reserved for indigenous peoples, lists of independents, and the presence of feminists and other social movements.
The fact that the right wing and the most conservative camps were pushed into a corner allowed for the drafting of a progressive constitutional text that was very advanced in many respects: it sought to put an end to the neoliberal subsidiary state and to build a “social and democratic state based on the rule of law”, with solidarity and equality, recognizing multiple fundamental rights, including forms of participatory democracy, providing a space for common goods and ways of tackling the climate crisis. With prominent feminist demands — such as the recognition of domestic and care work — the draft also recognized the establishment of a public social security system, the deprivatization of water, the replacement of the senate with a chamber of regions, and the creation (at last) of a plurinational state, integrating some of the historical demands of the Mapuche people.
Labour law also achieved a notable advance in the text, with collective bargaining by branch of activity, the right to strike effectively, and union ownership, all of which represented a Copernican shift with respect to the current Chilean law and generated discontentment among large local and transnational business leaders. While it was obvious that the new constitution would not dismantle neoliberalism as such, it could open the way for the new voices of class struggle in Chile.
So how can we explain the fact that the vast majority of Chileans turned their backs on this constitutional proposal, which many social organizations considered a historic step forward?
Causes for the Defeat
The first thing that must be pointed out is the neoliberal elites’ ability to concentrate power in the very area where social struggles seemed to have defeated the existing socio-economic model: the social rights enshrined in the draft of the new constitution in areas such as health, housing, access to water, education, and labour.
To this end, the forces of the rejection camp established a communication campaign of lies that became outright shameless. Through a massive social media campaign and the use of their near-monopoly on the media, they peddled nonsense along the following lines: “citizens would be forced to receive care from a collapsed public health system”, “freedom of education would be abolished”, “a welfare programme would be created that would result in workers opting for unemployment”, “housing would be expropriated and private property would be abolished”, “the principle of equality before the law would be abolished, favouring indigenous people and homosexuals, among other ‘minorities’”, “freedom of worship would be abolished and evangelical communities would be persecuted”, “abortion would be allowed at any stage of the pregnancy”, “all controls on entry to the country would be lifted”, “criminals would be granted more judicial protection than victims”, “workers’ savings would be confiscated, preventing their inheritance”, “the country’s name and national emblems would be changed” — just to name a few of the statements that appeared in the obligatory election slot on network TV channels.
Apart from the wide scope of lies in the rejection campaign, it is important to note the Right’s strategic planning ability. They even skilfully opted for a campaign that claimed to be in favour of constitutional change, but not of this new constitution, thus finding allies in the centre of the political spectrum and in supporters of the former Concertación (Coalition of Parties for Democracy).
On this point, there is an important difference compared to the political forces of the approval campaign: although the parliamentary Left and the anti-neoliberal social movements won most of the seats in the Constitutional Convention, their disagreements were evident right from the beginning of the election of the executive board, and some members seemed to carry on the ways and customs of the discredited Chilean Congress. The lists of independents experienced several setbacks and a scandal that ended with the resignation of one member. At the same time, forces on the centre-left were reluctant to follow the re-foundational proposals of the members linked to the demonstrations, a constraint that was reinforced by the imposition of a two-thirds quorum for the approval of each article.
In many cases, and despite numerous consultation and participation initiatives, the Convention was perceived as being too far removed from the immediate concerns of the people and their interests, and it was not possible to reverse this trend in the last few weeks.
On the other hand, despite the Boric administration’s promises of progressive reforms, it quickly encountered the same public distrust. When political decisiveness was needed to set the wheels of constitutional change in motion, the government inaugurated a hesitant mandate by seeking “pragmatic” alliances with the former Concertación in Congress — where it is in the minority — in order to be able to govern. In many instances, one could feel the weight of the government’s real chief of staff, Finance Minister Mario Marcel, the former president of the Central Bank and a former militant of the social-liberal bloc that has led the country since 1990.
Interior Minister Izkia Siches has also come under fire for beginning her term in office by briefly seeking a dialogue with the embattled Mapuche communities, only to end up endorsing the militarization of the area and the imprisonment of militant indigenous leader Héctor Llaitul. The same could be said of the political prisoners of the October Rebellion, as several continued to serve pre-trial detention while the Executive has been unwilling to move forward with a general pardon. There were concrete advances in access to public health care, but the lack of progress on key issues such as the mild tax reform is hindering the consolidation of the government’s reforming agenda.
The progressive government seemed unwilling to confront the usual economic and de facto powers, or to mobilize its base. Moved by this class perspective, an important part of those who had voted for Boric went on to openly disapprove of him. At the same time, the right wing took advantage of its well-oiled media machine to lump together the growing disapproval of the government and the draft of the new constitution. The press gave extensive coverage to the objective growth of organized crime and drug trafficking, associating it with the dire situation faced by migrants in the north of the country. The new electorate, originally motivated by compulsory voting, directly linked up with the disappointed populace, thus ensuring the sweeping triumph of the rejection camp.
As historian Igor Goicovich notes, the divide between the working class, the government, and the constitutional process is clear if one looks at the results of 4 September. The numerous issues raised at the Convention by social movements concerning feminism, environmentalism, and plurinationality did not attract much support among working class voters, and even raised doubts about the lack of social momentum for going around the country and debating these issues “from below”:
In all the communes that the environmentalists called “sacrifice zones”, the rejection vote prevailed by a wide margin … The situation was not very different in the communes of the Bio Bío Region and La Araucanía (South Macrozone), which are oriented towards timber exploitation and where the conflict between the logging companies and the indigenous communities has reached increasingly extreme proportions. [When observing the electoral behaviour of the communes of the Metropolitan Region, we find a historical trend: the communes with the highest incomes (Las Condes, Lo Barnechea, and Vitacura) voted massively for the rejection option. The communes that predominantly comprise middle-income sectors of the population, such as La Reina, Providencia, Macul, Peñalolén, and La Florida, also voted for rejection, with the exceptions of the communes of Maipú and Ñuñoa. While practically all of the working-class communes, including Recoleta, El Bosque, La Pintana, La Granja, Lo Espejo, Cerro Navia, Renca, and Independencia, which have been historical strongholds of the Left, also voted for rejection.
The section of the working class that, despite all the above, voted for approval both in last Sunday’s referendum and in that of 2020 is now struggling with a sense of catastrophe behind which one can see a commitment that is profoundly antagonistic to the Chilean neoliberal model. It is clear that this antagonism will not be supported by the government.
In his speech on 4 September, Boric called for national unity, to leave behind “maximalism, violence, and intolerance”, and announced an early reshuffling of his cabinet. He will choose his new cabinet in line with the “centre-leaning” trajectory we have already described, opening up La Moneda more to the forces of the former Concertación, which could further strain his ally, the Communist Party. This cabinet will be tasked with finalizing the tax reform in the form of a fiscal pact that will foreseeably respond to the government’s immediate survival priorities, i.e., attracting capital by embracing quick-profit businesses and asking for funds to cover public spending aimed at containing possible demonstrations.
On the constitutional level, all parties confirmed that they will continue to work on a new constitutional itinerary, but that it will be directed by the current Congress, thus hinting at the return of the politics of consensus that has been rejected so strongly since 2019 and burying the transformational imprint of the new constitution. On 4 September, faced with the result of the referendum, the statement of the Comando de Movimientos Sociales por el Apruebo concluded:
It is essential that the sectors that organized ourselves to make this process possible also take on the task we face today. There is no turning back now. Our people made an indisputable decision and the task of overthrowing Pinochet’s constitution and the neoliberal model is still on the agenda. In this process, the lessons we have learned will be fundamental, because we social movements are no longer what we were before this Constitution was written.