Why did Chileans reject a leftist constitution?

“Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” — Chilean president Gabriel Boric

On September 4, 2022, Chilean voters rejected a constitution that had been hailed as a “‘new global standard’ on climate and inequality.” The new draft was written to replace the 1980 constitution imposed by the military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973. But 62% of voters rejected it (Rechazo), in a massive blow to the Chilean Left. The U.S. Left can learn much from this experience.

The rejection was delivered by ordinary working Chileans. Indigenous people rejected it, despite its plan for a “plurinational” state encompassing ten autonomous indigenous nations. Women rejected the reputedly “model feminist constitution.” Communities that suffered most from drought rejected the draft, which enshrined public water rights. Young people, prisoners, and lower-income areas everywhere chose Rechazo. The constitution lost in every region and 98% of all communes.

Leftist president Gabriel Boric had promised that, although “Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” To get back on track, the Left needs to understand the causes of this failure.

Historical context

In 1990, massive opposition forced Pinochet’s regime to step down in favor of a post-authoritarian neoliberal government. Internationally heralded as a success, that government oversaw widespread privatization, deregulation, and increased inequality. Waves of popular protests by students, women, indigenous people, pensioners, and workers began in 2006. Four weeks of demonstrations and riots in 2019, the Estallido Social, compelled right-wing president Miguel Juan Sebastián Piñera to offer to replace the Pinochet constitution. Elites counted on the three-year “gradual constitutional replacement process” to blunt revolutionary fervor without endangering neoliberalism.

In October 2020, 78.7% voted for a new constitution, to be written not by politicians and experts, but by an elected 155-member constituent assembly with gender parity and 17 designated indigenous seats. In May 2021, leftists won 76% of the assembly seats. In December 2021, leftist Gabriel Boric was elected president with 56% of the vote, beating the far-right candidate.

Leftists interpreted these significant victories as a solid popular mandate, but failed to account for low voter turnout.  In fact, the new constitution, leftist assembly members, and Boric had been chosen by approximately 44%, 33%, and 31% of the electorate, respectively. The final “exit” referendum held September 4, 2022, however, would be compulsory for all voters. The resulting 86% turnout brought in many new voters, which leftists failed to consider. 

The “world’s most progressive constitution,” 178 pages long with 388 articles, was submitted on June 28. Polls predicted Rechazo, but one confident leftist declared that the polls only reflected “the aspirations of the great losers of this process … defenders of the neoliberal model.” But the draft lost by a landslide, receiving only 33% support. Most new voters but also many who had voted in 2020 for a new constitution, had rejected it. Tellingly, historically oppressed populations, the focus of the assembly’s social justice activists, rejected it.

What went wrong?

Activists struggled to explain the rout. The same leftist quoted above noted that 

“People who voted [Rechazo] support many things that are in it, like universal free health care, free education, a good pension system … It’s unbelievable people would reject that … Maybe they didn’t care? People are just containers of ideas, either they have the good ideas or not. You have to tell them the good ideas and that’s the role of the educated left progressive middle class.”

Leftist activists lashed out at ordinary Chileans on social media, claiming that Assembly members were far ahead of the conservative, ignorant, conformist, “fascist poor” ingrates who did the Right’s work for them. Chileans, they said, were vulnerable to misinformation because they are sexist, racist, and don’t understand their own best interests. Ironically, many leftists faulted the obligatory vote for involving new voters.

But as Rene Rojas cautions, “the Left must allow itself to be disciplined by what the Chilean people are saying, and to understand how working people see the world, rather than the way college-educated activists see the world.”

Problems with the Constituent Assembly, Convention, and draft Constitution

Public confidence plunged as soon as the Assembly started meeting. Bickering, scandals, extravagances, eccentricities, and slow progress revealed a polarized convention. Long out of power, fragmented, captivated by decolonial discourse on Buen Vivir, and focused on differences and hierarchies of worthiness and blame, the Left failed to impress.

The final draft incorporated both core universal material needs guaranteed to all and a larger set of social justice rights guaranteed to groups experiencing oppression and inequality and to nature. Rojas has pointed out that this division “set up key cleavages” along which the public agreed or disagreed.

The universal material rights guaranteed housing, public pensions, public health care and education, and labor protections. In exit polls, most Rechazo voters regardless of identity supported these demands.

But the convention focused mostly on a significantly broader set of government responsibilities to rectify historic inequalities and eliminate bias and to give nature a set of rights like a person. The constitution would have guaranteed protection against all forms of discrimination that “undermine human dignity” for at least sixteen categories. The state would be responsible for open-ended rights such as the full development of the personality, eliminating gender stereotypes and online violence, and facilitating “horizontal and transverse dialogue between the diverse cosmovisions of the people and nations.” Chile would become a “plurinational country,” whose 10 indigenous groups (13% of the population) would have separate justice systems.

The rights advanced by Assembly members ended up eclipsing the basic rights of interest to working Chileans. Assembly members used “alienating language” that people didn’t understand and focused on narrow concerns. The “Buen Vivir” approach to the rights of nature did not resonate with working Chileans. The maximalist draft was vulnerable to right-wing attacks.

Many voters who chose a new constitution in the 2020 plebiscite and rejected neoliberalism in the 2021 presidential election voted Rechazo. Post-election surveys showed that pluralities thought the convention process was poor, that the constitution would “create instability and uncertainty,” and that “plurinationalism” would balkanize Chile. By contrast, only 7% rejected the draft due to concerns about abortion.

Lessons for leftists

As Jane McAlevey says, the power to win is in the community, not the boardroom. The Chilean public won a new constitution by inflicting decades of production-crumbling social disruption. But the power to write the constitution was, to a degree, handed over to the boardroom. 

Campaigns for Buen Vivir and plurinationalism are laden with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Thousand Currents, Fundacion Pachamama, Pachamama Alliance, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, and the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature are five U.S. NGOs that heavily promote both campaigns. Most leftist social movement activists in the Assembly work within and would have been influenced by this milieu. 

NGOs are funded by foundations, tax-friendly vehicles for philanthropic millionaires to promote measures and reforms that are acceptable to elites. Foundations fund social movement organizations, activists, and academics, opening new fields of research while fostering their own strategies and tactics. People in the NGO orbit may identify as leftists, but foundations are neither “leftist” nor democratic. NGO-led movements do not build democratic organization or power and do not fundamentally challenge the political system.

Leftists should critically examine NGO-led “movements.” Human rights are barely enforced by capitalist states; could rights for nature and Indigenous cosmovisions fare any better? Ecuador and Bolivia have had plurinational Buen Vivir constitutions since 2008 and 2009.  How effective have they been?

One study of the “rights of Mother Earth” found that both countries “remain wedded to top down extractivist models of economic development that see ‘nature’s rights’ violated daily,” despite constitutional “guarantees.” Even Global Alliance Executive Natalia Greene admits Buen Vivir constitutions have had little to no effect on mining, oil drilling, or the economy. She claims only that “people’s imaginations” are changing in “hard-to-measure” ways.  

Neither state’s plurinational “constitution… [has had] a major impact on Indigenous populations.” Most language protecting Indigenous groups has never been codified into statute, plurinationalist laws are enforced only partially, and growing state control over subsoil resources denies Indigenous peoples a role in decision-making over resources in their territories.

Regrettably, these uncomfortable facts did not deter social justice activists in the Assembly, despite polls predicting that plurinationalism would sink the draft.  

The Assembly could have gained majority support by focusing on core universal material needs, guaranteed to all, with judiciously selected targeted protections. Assembly members needed to understand what ordinary Chileans supported and what they didn’t. But activists had few connections to society more broadly and thought they could do better. The draft constitution was a grand project to transform culture, designed by intellectuals, funded and influenced by wealthy elites, to be enforced by the state. 

The reactive blaming of Chileans for the loss reflects these narrow-minded politics. If ordinary Chileans are the problem, the only option activists have is to “preach at people with even louder, stronger voices that they’re wrong and that these reforms as written .. are the way to go.” Many did exactly that.

History has shown over and over that ideas alone cannot reform capitalist societies, let alone transform them into “community-centric, ecologically balanced and culturally sensitive” bio-civilizations.

Only the democratically organized power of working people is strong enough to extract significant concessions or bring about larger changes. Significant majorities, radical solidarity, and a power strategy to turn “what you have into what you need to get what you want” are essential, as Jane McAlevey explains. Only those who understand what they have can determine what is needed and how to get there. To win, battles for significant change must be democratic – bottom to top, beginning to end.  

The opportunity to write a new constitution was won by the millions who risked their lives in the largest mass demonstrations and strikes in Chilean history. But Assembly leftists failed to deliver the significant reforms brought within reach. Chileans will likely still get a new constitution, but the process will now involve more politicians and experts and be more influenced by the right wing. Boric has already moved to the Right by replacing the ministers of mining, energy, and interior, and the secretary-general.

Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker once said that socialists need “a sea chart for finding the way, for making sure we don’t get lost .. for not confusing what has to be done now with what has to be done later … [W]e need a compass to ensure the ship doesn’t run adrift.” The Left still has a great deal to learn.