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.
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.