Interview with Hélène Landemore

Political theorist Hélène Landemore:

Openness, and ‘taking citizens seriously’ are key to successful constitution-making

Interview by Claudia Heiss for the Observatory of the Constituent Process in Chile.

Hélène Landemore, Professor of Political Science at Yale University and Ph.D. from Harvard, recently visited Chile to address some of the challenges to contemporary democracy and discuss the role of deliberative participation in constitution-making. Invited to the “Congreso del Futuro” [Congress on the Future], organized by the Chilean government and several private instututions, and by Tribu Foundation, her agenda was intense: she made presentations at the Congreso del Futuro, at the forum “Democracia 2050”, organized by the business-oriented NGO ICARE [Chilean Institute on Rational Business Administration] and Tribu, and at the seminar on “Constitution-making processes and the case of Chile” organized by the Chilean office of the inter-governmental organization FLACSO [Latin American Social Sciences Institute] and Tribu. In the latter, she drew examples from a detailed account of the Icelandic process in order to explore the role of participation, random rather than electoral representation, and the use of crowdsourcing in order to open the political debate to the entire population. At the end of this conference, professor Landemore took some time talk to the Observatory of the Constituent Process in Chile about participation and constitution-making.

What role does citizen participation play in constitution-making processes? What kind of involvement and participation do you think would be most desirable?

What we used to mean by participation was for a long time “let us have a referendum”. People have grown tired of that. It is not enough to have the final say. If you did not have a right to shape and determine the content of what is decided on, your final say is not very meaningful. The French and the Dutch rejected the European Constitution in 2005 for that reason. They said “this is not the constitution we wanted”. The question then is how to increase participation so that it is more meaningful and takes place throughout: at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the process. People should have a say in setting the agenda of the debate and in discussing the model for constitution-making. I always use the Icelandic constitutional process as a good example of how to implement such participation, but even they could have been even more inclusive. The National Forum in Iceland was composed of 950 people who gathered to think about values they wanted to see embedded in the constitutional text; they could have had a crowdsourcing phase at that level, to make sure they were not forgetting important perspectives. Additionally, the National Forum could have been mirrored at the city level in similar bodies of citizens (with some mechanism for sending their input to the National Forum), so as to get as many groups of citizens as possible to talk about the constitution. True, there are limits to what’s feasible: including citizens, for example via randomly selected assemblies of several hundred people, means a costly procedure. But it also guarantees an enormous gain in the legitimacy and the quality of the product, and in the likelihood that it succeeds, both in the sense of bringing about good outcomes and being supported by the population.

I do not particularly like the notion of “direct democracy.” Instead I propose a new concept of “openness” where you don’t have to be involved directly in the decision-making process but you have an oportunity to be involved if you want to. If a process is open, it means there is equal opportunity to participate. An open process may not necessarily involve mass participation, but it is accessible to ordinary citizens, via mini-publics like the National Forum, but also via deliberative and crowdsourcing platforms and the transparency of the whole procedure. Based on what people see and understand of the process they can choose to participate or not in the deliberative phase. They can say “those who are already participating are doing a good enough job, I don’t need to chip in” or “this or that is missing, I have to say something”. When a process is opaque, by contrast, then you don’t know whether you need to participate or not because you don’t have all the information you need to make a decision.

In Chile what you could try is a version of the Icelandic model, where, at the drafting stage, the constitution-writers crowdsourced their draft by putting it on the Internet at various points. They gathered a lot of useful feedback that way, which made its way into the final draft –about 10% of the comments made a causal difference to the text–. You could also implement something like a right of initiative so people can send a proposal to the Constituent Assembly and have the Assembly debate it at least, and give some feedback as to why they chose to take it into account or not. In Iceland, where they were trying crowdsourcing in a constitutional context for the first time ever, they may have missed great proposals because of lack of time, misunderstandings or ideological misalignment. They were not fully prepared to handle the input they got. People could have probably put more topics on the table. There are so many ways to reinvent constitutional processes! We need to see all the options of constitutional design and only later consider political and economic restraints. We tend to assume constraints first and then think of the design. Let us be ambitious about design first and then see what is feasible.

Empirical studies seem to have been unable, so far, to produce conclusive evidence that citizen participation affects constitutional outcomes in any particular direction. How do you think the process affects the result?

The evidence is mixed, in part because researchers use different concepts of participation (are we talking about a referendum or a genuine deliberation; is participation taking place at the beginning of the process, during the drafting stage, or only at the end?) or measure it differently, which makes it all the harder to compare results.

The “outcomes” researchers look at are also very different. Some researchers have tried to measure the impact of participation on the levels of democracy post-implementation of a new constitution. Eisenstadt, Levan and Maboudi,[1] for example, have shown that cases of popular participation at the drafting stage show higher levels of post-implementation democracy. John Carey[2] said that more inclusive constitutional processes yield more democratic, temperate and durable political systems. On the negative side, for countries transitioning from authoritarian rule or after war or civil war, participation can make things worse, yielding less liberal outcomes (which we usually deem “worse”).[3] Research has often been done in contexts of crisis. If you do it right and in the right circumstances, however, the theory predicts that you should get a better text with a more participatory process; a more stable democracy, because people benefit from the system that is produced and the process has greater legitimacy.

Another problem is that very often “participation” is just a way for power to buy legitimacy on the cheap. That happened in South Africa. Two million submissions (from signatures to letters) were left unread because political parties had already set the terms of the agreement. Government gave people the illusion that their voice mattered but in the end they did not listen. This kind of participation may be better than nothing in terms of symbolic value and in terms of the democratic expectations it creates in the population, but it is also dangerous. The danger is that if you do this too often –create expectations and then disappoint them–. you breed cynicism and disengagement among citizens. If you are going to ask for citizens’ participation, you should think hard about your institutional design and how you are going to make the most out of people’s time and contributions. You should take citizens seriously.

Based on your study of Iceland and perhaps also on the Chilean case, what do you think are the main pros and cons of separating a participatory consultation phase form actual constitution making?

I think there is a big conceptual problem. If you pass all the information gathered in the first stage through the narrow filter of a few people at the top, there will be an enormous loss, no matter how well-intentioned the people doing the filtering are. It is important to infuse participatory principles all throughout the process. Constitution-making should be made by a specific assembly, convened for this specific purpose, preferably elective, perhaps randomly selected. It could be mixed: partly randomly selected and partly elected, as in Ireland. I don’t have the answer and no expert has the answer. This assembly should consult widely, via deliberative and crowdsourcing platforms where all citizens can give the constitution-makers some feedback. The mechanisms and procedures themselves should be discussed in a democratic fashion, with ample scrutiny by all citizens. The real proof that a government trusts its own people is when you include the people in the writing of the constitution itself.

It seems inevitable that the final drafting of a new Constitution will be done by a small group of people, however participatory the process may have been up to that point. How should the actual drafting take place so as to guarantee the legitimacy of the resulting text?

It is inevitable. You cannot have all of us writing the constitution. It is good that a body that is accountable do it. But it can be open. It can be receptive to brainstorming of ideas, to get input and modify their ideas in light of it. A Constituent Assembly seems to me the best model in general.

If the drafting takes place within a representative body like an Assembly, Congress, or some other type of organ, what features should it have in order to preserve the legitimacy that a participatory process provides?

It should explain its choices. Engage in a dialogue and deliberation with the people. It has to explain and engage in a conversation. The discussion should involve ordinary citizens, regular politicians, and constitution-makers. For this kind of conversation to happen, the media has an important responsibility. The Icelandic example is a cautionary tale from this point of view, because the Icelandic media did a poor job of covering the work of the constitutional council.

How should the members of the representative body in charge of drafting be selected? Is it advisable that Congress itself should draft the new Constitution or must it be a whole separate body?

Congress is the least credible for the job. Elective assemblies already in power are not adequate to create a new constitution. It should be a one-time assembly created for the specific task of drafting the constitution, in order to prevent the promotion of vested interests through constitutional design.


[1] Constituents Before Assembly: Participation, Deliberation, and Representation in the Crafting of New Constitutions, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

[2] “Does It Matter How a Constitution Is Created?”, in Zoltan Barany y Robert G. Moser, eds., Is Democracy Exportable?, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[3] Véanse Abrak Saati, The Participation Myth: Outcomes of Participatory Constitution Building Processes on Democracy, PhD dissertation, Umeå University, 2015; William Partlett, “The Dangers of Popular Constitution-Making”, Brooklyn Journal of International Law 38 (1), 2012; and Nathan Brown, “Islam and Constitutionalism in the Arab World: The Puzzling Course of Islamic Inflation.” en Aslı Bali and Hanna Lerner, eds., Constitution Writing, Religion, and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Hélène Landemore is the author of Hume. Probabilité et Choix Raisonnable (PUF: 2004) and Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (Princeton University Press 2013), where she argues for a democracy based on the collective intelligence generated by the inclusion of citizens with different ideas. She is also co-editor with Jon Elster of Collective Wisdom: Principles and Mechanisms (Cambridge University Press 2012).

She is currently working on a project on Digital Technology and Democratic Theory as well as in her next book: Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century, where she theorizes an alternative to representative democracy on the basis of concrete examples of participatory and deliberative democratic innovations.

Alberto Coddou on the Chilean presidential runoff

The Chilean presidential runoff and the revival of the constitutional agenda

Alberto Coddou Mc Manus

Despite initial indications that Chile’s constituent process was doomed to stall with the probable election of a right-wing government, the presidential and congressional elections of 19 November have challenged the dominant narratives. On Sunday 17 December 2017, Chile will face a presidential runoff with a revived constitutional agenda that is likely to stay for some time in Chilean politics – writes Alberto Coddou Mc Manus.

This column appeared on International IDEA’s website ConstitutionNET.

Three weeks ago, almost everyone thought that Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing billionaire, was going to win either in the first round, or in the presidential runoff to be held next Sunday (17 December 2017). Opinion polls gave him an overwhelming support, and some even anticipated that there might be no need for a second round. Somehow, many thought that the election was already decided, and that Chileans were leaning in favour of moderating the pace of the reforms promoted by the current socialist government, which involved regulations on access to the educational system, a tax reform, a qualified abortion law, and the creation of a new constitutional arrangement to replace Pinochet’s constitution. For several observers, the ‘sociological’ analysis was more or less clear: four years ago Chileans were willing to make structural reforms to the ‘model’ – that is, to the open endorsement of a free market system ‘with a human face’ that began with the return to democracy in the 1990s, which explained the victory of a socialist president. Nowadays, these analysts claim, Chileans think the government went too far, and that although they want more opportunities to flourish, they want to retain their freedom to choose between the private system and the state for access to basic goods. Moreover, and following an agenda-setting strategy of different media corporations, liberal think-thanks, and economists, this climate was amplified by the negative approval rates of president Bachelet and her cabinet, and an allegedly huge backlash against the reforms promoted by the government.

In this scenario, the constituent process launched by the government during 2016 was doomed to fail. Although a consultation process gathered more than 200 000 people in several stages to discuss the contents of a new constitutional chart, the lack of political support among both the official governing coalition and the right-wing opposition made the constitutional path harder. Low rates of approvals, and the need to address the social and economic effects of the end of the ‘golden decade’ of commodities in the region pushed the government away from any big-scale project of reform without immediate impact on the population. Furthermore, the need to achieve super-majoritarian quorums (2/3rds or 3/5ths of each chamber of Congress) for any constitutional project to pass, frustrated any constitutional enthusiast. In the words of a former socialist senator, discussing a new constitution in these circumstances was like ‘smoking opium’.

After the 19 November 2017 vote, however, the panorama is now radically different. Unlike even the most negative predictions, Sebastián Piñera came in first place with a mere 36% of support. The biggest surprise, however, was the strong contest for the second place, which would determine the contender for the presidential runoff: while the candidate of the ruling coalition (Alejandro Guillier) achieved a poor 22%, Beatriz Sanchez, supported by a newly created leftist coalition (Broad Front), ended with 20% of the votes (a difference of approximately 150 000 votes). Furthermore, the parliamentary elections also went significantly against public expectations. The older binominal electoral system, which gave the two ruling coalitions an almost undisputed power to control access to parliamentary seats, was replaced by a new proportional system that gave more opportunities for smaller political platforms within an enlarged Congress. Although there was some uncertainty regarding the composition of the new Congress, nobody expected the achievements of the Broad Front, which elected 20 members in the Chamber of Deputies and one in the Senate.

In further surprises, several ‘old barons’ of different parties were not re-elected; a young movement of liberal right-wing leaders, who are attempting to replace the traditional right, increased their participation; a gender quota law enacted at the end of last year radically increased female presence, including an indigenous leader. From every point of view, this Congress is more attuned to Chilean society, and for different reasons, is a Congress that moved one step to the left. In this new scenario, the presidential runoff race has been slanted to address the issues raised by the Broad Front, such as an end to the pension system bequeathed by Pinochet, the scope of Bachelet’s commitments to a free and high quality education for all, and, more importantly, the prospects of a new constitution. Alejandro Guillier has now received different endorsements from the Broad Front, including many elected Congresspersons, and from Beatriz Sánchez herself. Within these exchanges, the constitutional agenda has acquired a new life, becoming a crucial bridge for left-of-center and far-left positions that may have different stances on several public policies.

The constitutional agenda now has different options for resurrection. There is a constitutional bill pending in Congress that would create a ‘Constitutional Convention’ that should decide on a constitutional draft to be presented by the government after next Sunday’s presidential runoff. Although the name ‘Constitutional Convention’ invites us to think of a mixed composition of elected representatives and citizens, the bill does not prejudge on this regard. Alejandro Guillier has said that this Convention must adopt the form of a Constituent Assembly (composed of citizens specially elected for the sole task of creating a new constitutional draft). However, the approval of this bill, and even the precise nature of the Convention, are subject to super-majority constitutional quorums, which curtails the chances for this project to succeed in this Congress given the likely opposition from the parties on the right. The Broad Front is now pressing Guillier’s support team to open discussion for an entry referendum, that is, an amendment that could allow the president to call for a referendum that can begin a constituent process without the constraint of current constitutional frameworks. Voices from the socialist and communist parties, and other militants on the left of the New Majority coalition are of the same opinion, but Alejandro Guillier still lacks a clear stance on the possibility of endorsing a ‘new constitution’ as a main banner of his campaign for next Sunday’s election.

Whatever results we may expect, and whatever the future of the constituent process initiated by the Bachelet government may be, the constitutional reform agenda is now here to stay for some time. With the new left in Congress, and with increasing demands for more egalitarian arrangements in the access to fundamental rights, constitutional issues will continue to arise every time the constitution acts as a blockade for what politics can do. Despite the reforms that have addressed some of the major constraints on democracy in the Chilean Constitution, there are still remnants that make structural reforms difficult, including the high threshold for the modification of ‘organic laws’, and the ‘preventive’ control of constitutionality by Chile’s Constitutional Court. During Bachelet’s term, every important reform was subject to review by the Constitutional Court, in some cases seriously curtailing the possibility of democratic deliberation in the Congress. If Guillier wins this Sunday, the constitutional arrangement will be in tension with a political manifesto committed to replace the constitution through a Constituent Assembly. To the contrary, if Sebastián Piñera gets the majority vote, he will have to lead a hyper-presidential system with a Congress that, although fragmented, has clearly moved to the left. In this context, disputes about the boundaries of powers between the Executive and the Congress are expected to grow, and with it the periodic revival of the constitutional agenda.

Alberto Coddou Mc Manus is Content and Consulting Coordinator at the Observatory of the Chilean Constituent Process.

Alberto Coddou on opinion polls and constitutional issues in Chile

Opinion polls and constitutional issues: the case of Chile

Alberto Coddou Mc Manus

In the case of Chile, opinion polls reveal a complex relationship between public opinion and constitutional issues. By listing separately, as possible answers, ‘constitutional reforms’, ‘education’, ‘health’ and ‘criminality’, the question posed by the poll implies that the existing constitution plays no role in explaining why the latter concerns figure among the top priorities of the population. The relationship between constitutional issues and opinion polls should be carefully examined, critically assessing how the questions are framed, how constitutional preferences and attitudes may result in concrete political behaviour, and considering how important it is to (re-)connect constitutional issues, constitutional problems and solutions, with the lives and everyday concerns of the people.

This column appeared on The Constitution Unit blog.

In general, opinion polls ask about our political preferences within established political systems. They ask us to express our political preferences or attitudes regarding the range of political options that the current constitutional system allows, either in the form of political candidates, ideas or reforms. In the US, opinion polls on constitutional matters have been fundamental for the analysis of the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, either for predicting judgments or for explaining its reasons. Moreover, opinion polls are an important instrument for ascertaining the degree of support, political approval, or legitimacy that a certain political system garners among the population. However, opinion polls are also an important tool for asking people hypothetical questions, such as the ones that emerge from the exercise of constitutional powers. Indeed, opinion polls can be an interesting device for investigating the possibilities that may derive from exercises in constitutional imagination.

In this scenario, the relationship between opinion polls and constitutional issues is multifarious: on the one hand, they can be an interesting measure of the degree of legitimacy of an extant constitutional arrangement; on the other, they can inquire into the possible outcomes or possibilities that may be open under alternative constitutional frameworks. In the middle, we can find those techniques of social research that attempt to capture the degree to which issues of legitimacy may result in positive dispositions towards creating new political institutions, or crafting a new institutional arrangement for addressing political issues. In countries not at risk of experiencing violent political conflict, or that are not close to institutional collapse, the different relations between opinion polls and constitutional matters constitute an important source for broader political analysis.

In the case of Chile, opinion polls reveal a complex relationship between public opinion and constitutional issues. In the face of a presidential election that will take place on November 19, the relevance of constitutional issues for the political agenda is a matter of debate. Although the country is undergoing a ‘constituent process’ pushed by the government of Michelle Bachelet, which during 2016 implemented a consultation process (which included self-convened meetings and open citizens’ assemblies organized by the government) for the people to discuss what constitutional issues should be included in a new constitution, there has been scant ‘popular’ mobilisation around the issue after the end of that consultation process in August of 2016. We are not witnessing the degree of popular mobilisation and exchange of opinion that would be required for a ‘constitutional moment’, according to Bruce Ackerman. Chile has one of the lowest rates of political participation around the world, and it is part of a select list of countries where the fall of political turnout has been the sharpest since 1990 (a list which includes Congo, Libya, and Madagascar, countries which, unlike Chile, have experienced recent and serious political conflicts). According to a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), political disaffection and the loss of popular trust in political institutions should be a warning sign for Chilean democracy.

However, in the view of an important part of the political establishment, the lack of political interest by the citizenry is not a matter of concern. Indeed, they interpret the scenario just described as an expression of the maturity and consolidation of Chilean democracy. According to Carlos Peña and Harald Beyer – two of the most influential public intellectuals – Chileans, in particular the middle class created by the economic growth and political stability of the decades since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, are satisfied with their lives and with their prospects for the near and mid-term future. Based on the analysis of different opinion polls and reports, they claim that political abstention should be understood as a sign of the consolidation of a society with advanced patterns of consumption, in which spaces of autonomy have decoupled individuals’ life-projects from the burdens of collective horizons of meaning embedded either in communities, societies, or the state. For these intellectuals, constitutional matters are not appealing for the Chilean society of 2017, composed of subjects that seem more interested in their individual well-being rather than questions of collective concern such as the discussion of a new constitution. According to the right-wing liberal think-thank Centro de Estudios Públicos [Centre for Public Studies], which runs the most methodologically well-regarded opinion poll, the concern for ‘constitutional reforms’ ranks very low among the priorities the population, much lower than the top three: crime, health, and education.

Source: Centro de Estudios Públicos, Estudio Nacional de Opinión Pública September -October 2017.

Based on these studies, the ‘liberal establishment’ supports the idea that political representatives should dismiss the constitutional agenda promoted by different social movements and then pushed forward by the current government. Furthermore, it constitutes now the basis of right-wing campaigning for this month’s election, and it is also attractive for several factions within the centre-left coalition that oppose the constitutional agenda of the President. In other words, they emphasise that politicians should focus more on what are often referred to as the ‘real issues of the people’: employment, security, and other basic services.

By listing separately, as possible answers, ‘constitutional reforms’, ‘education’, ‘health’ and ‘criminality’, the question posed by the poll implies that the existing constitution plays no role in explaining why the latter concerns figure among the top priorities of the population. On the contrary, it can be argued – as many have – that the problem of poor and unequal access to quality healthcare (which explains why ‘health’ is the second highest concern of the population) is related to the subsidiary role that the Pinochet Constitution assigns to government in the economy in general, including the provision of services such as healthcare and education. Shouldn’t we explore the possibility that the general concern over the issue of health entails the need to address issues related to the ‘new constitution’ or ‘constitutional reforms’ that could end with the subsidiary role of the Chilean state in the economy? Or, alternatively, what if we say that one of the problems that make health a top priority relates to the constitutionally protected freedom to choose a private health system, which contributes to the fact that the public health system remains of a poor quality. What these mainstream opinion polls do when asking citizens for the urgency of the new constitution is to frame the issue as a zero-sum game against other concerns, thus obscuring the connections between what directly concerns the citizen and the constitution.

According to several other opinion polls, such as those by the UNDP, an overwhelming majority of Chileans consider that the current constitution requires important or major reform, or that the country simply needs a new constitutional arrangement. When asked for the reasons for it, citizens claim that the fact of having been enacted under a dictatorship does not constitute a major flaw of the existing constitution; rather, a majority of the population thinks that the Pinochet Constitution is not appropriate for the challenges the country is currently facing, such as the urgent need to address the claims and interests of the indigenous population, or the widespread support for more egalitarian access to basic public services.

Source: United Nations Development Program (Chile), IV Encuestra Auditoría a la Democracia

Furthermore, a majority of Chileans think that Congress is not the body that should decide on a new constitutional arrangement (6%) but, rather, are in favour either of a ‘constitutional convention’ (composed of citizens and congresspeople) (41%) or a constituent assembly of representatives specifically elected for that purpose (43%).  


Opinion polls are an important source of information for constitutional debates, especially in countries where the emergence of the constituent power as a disruptive force, either in the form of violent conflicts or institutional collapse, is still at a distance. However, the relationship between constitutional issues and opinion polls should be carefully examined, critically assessing how the questions are framed, how constitutional preferences and attitudes may result in concrete political behaviour, and considering how important it is to (re-)connect constitutional issues, constitutional problems and solutions, with the lives and everyday concerns of the people.

Alberto Coddou Mc Manus is Content and Consulting Co-ordinator at the Observatory of the Chilean Constituent Process, and a PhD candidate in the UCL Faculty of Laws.

Alberto Coddou on the presidential election

The Chilean Presidential Election and the Constituent Process

Alberto Coddou Mc Manus

All of the candidates with the possibility of getting significant support from voters on next Sunday have a stance on constitutional affairs, which run from mayor constitutional amendments to the creation of a new constitution through a constituent assembly.

This column appeared on the I-CONnect blog.

Next Sunday, November 19, Chile will celebrate one of the most important presidential elections since the return to democracy in 1990s. According to different opinion polls, Sebastian Piñera, a right-wing millionaire, will most likely receive the highest number of votes in the first round, and face either the traditional centre-left coalition (now called Nueva Mayoría), or a new left movement called Frente Amplio, in a December 17 runoff for the presidency. For several observers, the main issue at debate is whether the Chilean citizens want to continue with the transformative agenda promoted by the current government of Michelle Bachelet. In the founding manifesto of the Nueva Mayoría, political commitments included a structural education reform, a more just and progressive scheme for taxation, and a new constitution. Last year, the government decided to launch a multi-stage constituent process, including a widespread consultation stage with informal political public spheres, which ended in a document – the Citizens’ Bases for a New Constitution – that should serve as the basis for a new project of the Constitution. Apparently, the President will present a final draft before the National Congress between the first and second rounds, that is, between November 19 and December 17. Although this process has been celebrated by several regional and international organizations, such as the OECD, it has not generated a massive opinion mobilization or debate among citizens. Despite complying with international standards of transparency, participation and inclusion, a lack of political and official support has resulted in only a weak follow-up to the constitutional momentum that was initially prompted by Bachelet’s government. One of the world’s most concentrated media, a dramatic decrease in political participation, and the electoral pressures that derive from the need to prevent the right-wing coalition from returning to power have been crucial factors in the lack of political support to the constitutional agenda from the socialist President.

An alternative reading for this decaying constitutional agenda comes from the “liberal establishment.” According to Carlos Peña, one of the leading public intellectuals, and Harald Beyer, current director of Centro de Estudios Públicos, the main right-wing/liberal think-tank in Chile, Chileans do not want any structural reform to the economic and political arrangements that are embedded in the Constitution of Pinochet. For them, these arrangements have provided the framework for a transition to democracy that has been celebrated as a model for the rest of Latin America. Based on different reports and opinion polls, they have described the transformation of Chilean society and the process of capitalist modernization as creating spaces of autonomy and individual life projects that are currently being decoupled from collective dimensions of meaning. Within this thesis, they understand the dramatically low political turnout as an epiphenomenon of increasingly large spaces of autonomy present in Chilean society Moreover, they argue that the lack of interest in constitutional affairs can be explained by the same phenomenon, while advanced patterns of consumption are a sign of the modernization of Chile, something which should not generate any significant alarm or concern. Overall, for these commentators, the political system should concentrate on the immediate and material interests of Chileans, which seem more concerned with individual well-being rather on ambitious projects of constitutional imagination.

All of the candidates with the possibility of getting significant support from voters on next Sunday have a stance on constitutional affairs, which run from mayor constitutional amendments to the creation of a new constitution through a constituent assembly. Based on the results next Sunday, one of two candidates from the left or center-left will face Sebastián Piñera in an eventual second round in December (ballotage): Alejandro Guillier, supported by the ruling coalition, and Beatriz Sanchez, a well-known journalist supported by recently created political parties and other social movements that have been present in the public sphere since the students mobilizations of 2011. These candidacies differ on various procedural and constitutional issues. For Sebastian Piñera, the constitution needs some major amendments that are related with the efficiency of the Chilean state in addressing citizen’s concerns, but not the creation of a new constitutional arrangement. For the senator Alejandro Guillier, the independent candidate of the Nueva Mayoría, there is a need to continue with the commitment of Michele Bachelet and thus the Congress must activate the creation of a Constitutional Convention, composed by citizens and representatives, or a Constituent Assembly, which could debate a constitutional project and propose a referendum to be decided ultimately by the people. Lastly, Beatriz Sanchez represents a majority of Chileans that, according to an opinion poll made by the Chilean branch of UNDP, claim that a Constituent Assembly is the best method to create a new constitution, including two referendums: one at the beginning of the process, asking citizens how they want to create the new constitution, and one at the end, ratifying the outcomes of the constituent assembly.

Furthermore, the candidates differ on their substantive proposals, that is, on their preferred constitutional framework that will allow them to materialize their political commitments. While Sebastian Piñera wishes to extend the presidential period to 6 years and improve the powers of Congress, Alejandro Guillier is leading the push for a semi-presidential model of government and to decrease the minimum age for exercising the franchise to 16. In turn, Beatriz Sánchez’s manifesto emphasizes greater political powers for Chile’s geographically different regions and new forms of direct democracy that could reverse low levels of trust in political institutions. Regarding fundamental rights, Piñera insists that Chileans do not want any major changes, and, even more, has won support by prioritizing the freedom to choose private systems for basic social provisions such as health, education, and social security; for Guillier and Sanchez, instead, these kind of freedoms are not improved by increasing market participation in the provision of basic services, but rather by creating minimum levels of egalitarian access to basic social rights. Nevertheless, the latter two candidates have major differences on the ways in which they would seek to make this political commitment viable.

In contrast with the liberal interpretation of current indicators of political disaffection and mistrust in political institutions as part of normal processes of modernization, all of the candidates’ support teams are aware that these numbers represent a serious problem for political legitimacy and that the constitution should do something more to address it. After next Sunday, it is expected that the constitutional agenda will revive with a need for left and centre-left parties and movements to agree on a basic agenda for the second round. How the presidential election ends will depend on the ability of the opposing political teams to connect citizens’ concerns and interests with broader constitutional affairs.

Alberto Coddou Mc Manus is Content and Consulting Co-ordinator at the Observatory of the Chilean Constituent Process, and a PhD candidate in the UCL Faculty of Laws.