Newsletter 3 (June 2017)

Editorial summary

Constituent process and presidential primaries. The electoral campaign for the presidential primaries of July 2 is the start of a new electoral cycle, which provides an opportunity for presidential candidates to take stances on the constituent process and the possibility of drafting a new Constitution, in particular through the legally mandated slot of electoral propaganda, in which candidates are alloted equal broadcast time, providing high levels of exposure to the voting population.

Although public discussion on the constitutional problem has declined in intensity in comparison to previous years, this year’s electoral campaigns will surely revive it. It is expected that different political sectors which aspire to gain political representation will try to give relevance to the highlight the issue, and even President Bachelet, head of the outgoing government, has stated her intention that the draft new Constitution she will present to Congress this year can be used to make the constitutional issue one on which candidates may take explicit position.

Therefore, both what this year’s political campaigns may express as well as what they may not, will be relevant. This can already seen in their alloted TV propaganda slots for the primaries. Right-wing coalition “Let’s go, Chile” [Chile Vamos] candidates, naturally more comfortable with the constitutional status quo, have kept silent on the subject, except for a brief reference in Felipe Kast’s spot to “constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples”, one of the promises included in his political platform. This general silence in part of the Right is understandable given that competition in primary elections involves candidates who dispute votes from the same political sector, and in the case of the Right, the constitutional issue will not yield electoral results. However, that silence often hides the fact that some proposals of those candidates require constitutional amendments. While this is acknowledged in their platform documents, their propaganda focuses on issues such as economic growth, crime, and employment.

In the case of the Frente Amplio, both Beatriz Sánchez’s candidacy and Alberto Mayol’s platforms propose a new Constitution drafted by a Constituent Assembly. Mayol’s propaganda slot was the first to deal substantively with the issue, attacking the legitimacy of the current Constitution’s dictatorial origin, using a metaphor of an “uneven playing field”, rules of a game that “were agreed among a few” in a political context in which “we had not even gone into the playing field”. Thus, his focus is on a political message that justifies the need for a new Constitution. Sánchez’s propaganda, on the other hand, although it made reference to the lack of legitimacy of the current constitution, both in its origin (it was “crafted under a dictatorship”) its exercise (“despite having been patched, it is still not working”), it stands out for elaborating on the subject of the Constituent Assembly, invoking the cases of other countries, but it gives no details regarding its specific characteristics nor the political and institutional steps necessary to get to it, although she has stated that her first government action would be to convene the Assembly.

Constitutional endorsement. A column by the academic Esteban Szmulewicz, and an interview with the former President of the Citizens Council of Observers of the constituent process [Consejo Ciudadano de Observadores] Patricio Zapata published online, suggest a similar diagnosis regarding the need for a constitutional change. According to the first one, the constitutional problem is that the current constitution “has not been unable to generate constitutional patriotism, that is, to crystallize the shared political culture of the country in light of our national history and to work as a tool of social integration”. In a similar vein, Zapata identifies as the main problem of the current constitution the fact that, because of its content, it is “difficult for everyone to feel it as his or her home”.

Both opinions agree on a diagnosis that can be referred to as a “lack of endorsement” of the constitution by the people. Beyond the abstraction of the concept of “constitutional patriotism” or the vagueness of the idea, expressed by Zapata, that the constitution should “feel like everyone’s home”, the diagnosis points to the gap between the politics that takes place within the instituted defined by the constitution, on the one hand, and citizens’ loyalties, on the other. The issue is the loss of legitimacy of representative institutions, the so-called “legitimation crisis” or –more mildly put– “crisis of trust” which the country is going through.

Despite broad agreement across the political spectrum regarding this diagnosis, there are differences in the proposed solutions. Both Smulewicz and Zapata give consideration to the possibility that the institution in charge of drafting the new Constitution could have a mixed composition, which would include citizen as well as sitting congresspeople. Zapata, along with some Christian Democratic politicians, has defended the idea proposal of a “Constituent Convention” composed of congresspeople and citizens appointed by Congress, not elected by the people. Szmulewicz, meanwhile, suggests the alternative that “a percentage of Constitutional Convention” be composed of sitting congresspeople “appointed by the respective political parties to which they belong”.

Such proposals seem completely counterproductive insofar as they seek to solve the problem of the gap between institutional politics and citizens by means of moving away from the basic form of exercise of democratic sovereignty, namely, the election of representatives by citizens through elections, and instead, to give to the political actors whose legitimacy is at the heart of the crisis –political parties and Congress– the power to choose the constituent representatives.

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