Chile’s constitutional convention is a fascinating example of how citizens’ representatives can refound a contemporary democracy.
Chile is a social and democratic State based on the rule of law. It is plurinational, intercultural and ecological. It is constituted as a solidary republic, its democracy is [based on] parity [between men and women] and it recognises as intrinsic and inalienable values the dignity, freedom, substantive equality of human beings and their indissoluble relationship with nature. The protection and guarantee of individual and collective human rights are the foundation of the state and guide all its activity. It is the duty of the state to generate the necessary conditions and provide the goods and services to ensure the equal enjoyment of rights and the integration of persons into political, economic, social and cultural life for their full development.Article 1, as approved, of the draft constitutional text
The idea of calling a constitutional convention in Chile was approved by nearly 80 per cent of its citizens in a referendum in October 2020. They demanded a new framework which would put an end to the constitution written under the military dictatorship, redefining the character and organisation of the state and its relations with the citizenry.
Among other objectives, the goal was to transform the mechanisms that generate inequalities and redistribute power, ending the excessive centralisation of the state, the disrespect and exclusion of indigenous peoples and the historical under-representation of, and violence against, women. An equal concern was to stop the destruction of the environment.
After almost ten months of arduous work, the process is being concluded and the text of the new constitution approved so far is already valued. Yet at this moment, which should be a source of joy, siren warnings are heard more and more intensely from dominant political and economic forces, manipulating the fears and resistances profound changes arouse. They distort the contents of the approved proposals, call for rejection in the ratifying referendum and recommend maintaining the existing leaderships and structures of the state—even though it was against these that the social movements protested in 2019. The current constitution does not guarantee the exercise of rights, the development of political capacity or the social cohesion of the citizenry.
The convention process began long before its establishment in July 2021 and is one of the most democratic and representative in the history of the country. It had its most immediate roots in the social outburst of October 2019 and more distant ones in the social and political movements for a new constitution which began from the very moment of the recovery of the democratic regime in 1990.
From 2011, different social movements—feminist, student, pensioner, regional, environmental—were openly mobilising against the negative effects of the Chilean growth model: the deepening of inequalities, the low quality of social services, social and urban fragmentation, the segregation of cities and the destruction of nature. The disrepute of the institutions has meanwhile increased: they are perceived as alien to citizens and deaf to their demands, their desires and their conceptions of justice. In addition, the implication of many members of important business organisations in corrupt practices has affected an already-weakened legitimacy.
The explosion in October 2019 was an expression of this accumulation of diverse and simultaneous malaises. For the citizens, it was evident that the institutions and their authorities did not guarantee them the material, social and physical conditions that would allow them to develop their capacities, exercise their rights, be recognised and valued. They did not feel considered as equals enjoying the same rights to express their ways of understanding reality, their aspirations and desires and their lifestyles.
The Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution signed in November 2019 by all political forces was an institutional solution to the social crisis and gave the go-ahead to the constituent process, endorsed in the referendum the following October.
The strategy of broad alliances of the feminist movement and the wide support for indigenous peoples during the mobilisations around this time ensured that the National Congress approved gender parity and seats reserved for the different peoples to integrate the convention—important achievements of a long struggle against the exclusion and historical under-representation of women and indigenous peoples.
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Citizen participation was important. More than 70 lists were registered for the direct elections to the convention in May 2021, the lists of independents surpassing those registered by the opposition political pacts—an important part of the citizens wanted to participate without mediation, from the territories and social bases. Most of the 155 convention members came from various territories known for decades for their support for causes of social justice, gender equality, general sexual and ecological dissent and the political recognition of indigenous peoples.
The presence of women in the convention has been decisive in including in the constitutional debate provisions that promote gender equality. They have succeeded in that real gender equality traverses and structures all the guidelines approved. On the other hand, the political leadership of women has been strengthened and they have been present in the substantive debates of the convention, such as on the political system, regional administrations and plurinationality, bringing a feminist perspective.
Convention members coming from the regions, among them recognised women leaders, have been the big promoters of regional governance. And the representatives from the reserved seats have guided the debate and approval of the guidelines referring to the plurinational character of the state.
Some of the rules approved in the plenary which have passed to the draft text of the new constitution are expressive of the feminist dimension which structures it:
- Distinct provisions recognise the principle of parity and the inclusion of a gender perspective. They would generate positive conditions for women to integrate different spaces of representation and decision-making at the national, regional and communal levels.
- The enormous and important work of women in the creation and maintenance of social bonds—in their dimensions of solidarity, interdependence, mutual aid and reciprocity—is recognised. This work constitutes the cement of social cohesion.
- By including the gender perspective in institutional design and public policies, the state is obliged to consider the life situations of women and their daily needs.
- The recognition of care work and its contribution to the economy, as well as the need to overcome the discrimination experienced by women in the world of work, will favour greater economic independence for women, expanding their scope for taking decisions about their lives and those of their community.
- The provisions adopted to promote the elimination of violence (the right to a life free of violence) and the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights constitute substantive advances for the physical and psychological integrity of women.
A prominent aspect has been the transparency of the constituent process. One can attend all the debates and votes of the committees and plenaries and gain access to the minutes and records of the convention. At the same time, from distinct citizens’ observatories different aspects of the constitutional debate can be monitored. All of which has generated an institutional and social fabric around the convention, bringing citizens closer to a new institutionality.
The convention members representative of the country’s diversity had to start by recognising each other, unlike what happens with the members of the elites who are in permanent co-ordination. They had to equip themselves with an instrument to regulate the procedure for their deliberations, the taking of decisions and relations between them and the citizenry.
The convention opened itself to citizen participation through territorial meetings, town halls, workshops, public hearings and consultation processes. The presentation of the popular initiatives for constitutional specifications sponsored by more than 15,000 signatures was massive—they were welcomed and debated in the committees, also inspiring initiatives presented by convention members. (Out of 2,496 popular initiatives 77 achieved sponsorship, to be discussed in the committees.) The convention summoned experienced politicians, including former presidents, professionals, experts and international guests and was nourished by the analysis of comparative experiences.
The process gave rise to a deep institutional learning which allowed most convention members to move from different conceptions, points of view and very particular demands towards a more thorough look at the problems. Members have had to consider the distinct positions from which others speak and be conscious of the need for political deliberation between different proposals. Although in the beginning members may have felt at some distance from the positions of others, over time they have become aware of the need for transversal and robust agreements which respond to the complexity of the topics discussed.
In this way, the guidelines approved have been the product of a collective work that has required iterative processes of deliberation around the contents of the proposals, which are approved with a high threshold of two-thirds of the vote of the plenary. This way of proceeding, despite the tight agreed schedule, shows a new path to building institutions in tune with the needs, desires and diversity of citizens’ projects.
The contents of the approved provisions are based on the values and principles of freedom, substantive equality and solidarity. These should guide the work of a decentralised state which guarantees the exercise of the fundamental and social rights of citizens, recognises the social and cultural diversity of the country and establishes a new relationship with nature and the citizenry.
Once the approval of the constitutional guidelines has been completed, the draft passes in the second half of May to the harmonisation commission of the convention, while two new committees—one responsible for drafting the preamble and the other for preparing the transitional provisions—work simultaneously on the final text to be adopted in plenary.
After being approved and sent to the president, Gabriel Boric, the concluding referendum will be called, its date already fixed for September 4th. It is a date full of symbolism in the history of the country: on that day in 1970 Salvador Allende was elected president, backed by his Popular Unity coalition, only to die in the coup which installed General Augusto Pinochet three years later.
The results of the referendum are however uncertain. The convention was set in motion in a context of social protest which released an important energy and will to change—as the results of the initiating referendum and the elections of convention members, of governors and, last December, of Boric testify. But two years on, with the pandemic and in the face of a visible increase in violence associated with drug trafficking and crime, a diffuse aspiration for order has arisen and doubt has grown about the possible effects of the convention in this context. At the same time, inflation—unleashed to an important extent by external causes, as well as the increase in consumption supported by the withdrawals of pension funds and government aid in the pandemic—and an increase in interest rates have affected the incomes of the lower-middle and poor sections of the population.
This climate has been exploited by right-wing forces which have deployed from the beginning an insidious campaign of rejection, provoking fears and stereotypes and falsifying the content of the debates and the provisions approved. Under different slogans which skilfully take off from recognising the need for a new constitution, they victimise themselves as being a minority and seek to include third options in the concluding referendum to reopen the process, ignoring its legitimate and democratic bases. They spread the ideas that this convention divides Chileans and the country and that the strengthening of new political communities associated with the recognition of regional states generates new lines of conflict.
They complain that this is a constitution for the indigenous peoples, because it recognises the rights accorded by international treaties, and feminist, due to its recognition of new rights which supposedly depart from the beliefs and demands of the silent majority of women. The short time allowed for the work of the convention has intensified to the extreme the working days of its members, decreasing the frequency of contact with their territories.
Bringing citizens closer
With the proposals gradually agreed, however, the current in favour of approval is becoming visible. The guidelines are being copied and disseminated by less visible networks and in personal relationships, while different groups of progressive politicians, intellectuals, artists and social organisations are demonstrating in favour of approval and denouncing the strategy of rejection.
There is still, though, a long way to go. The need is to show the effects of the proposed new constitution on people’s lives, supporting social coexistence and strengthening political communities that bring citizens closer to their institutions.
This article benefited from the collaboration of Verónica Riquelme, colleague at the Centre for Women’s Studies
Virginia Guzman is deputy director of the Centre for Women's Studies and professor of sociology at Universidad Alberto Hurtado and Universidad de Chile in Santiago. She is co-ordinator of studies in the regional programme in gender and public policies of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, Argentina.