Chileans rejected a second attempt to change their Constitution – politics are now likely to refocus on different matters

People celebrate in front of La Moneda Palace after the referendum on the proposal for a new constitution was rejected, in Santiago, Chile

People celebrate in front of La Moneda Palace after the referendum on the proposal for a new constitution was rejected, in Santiago, Chile.

© picture alliance / Anadolu | Lucas Aguayo Araos

The Chilean people once again voted against replacing their 1980 Constitution after a failed attempt in 2022. While the text was perceived as too left-leaning last time, the opposite problem seems to have hindered this second proposal’s chances. President Boric has now announced there are no plans for a third attempt during his administration, and most of the population agrees.

On Sunday, Chileans went to the polls to vote for the second time to try to replace their 1980 Constitution, approved during Augusto Pinochet’s military regime. As it had happened in September of 2022, when the first proposal was rejected by a large majority (62% vs. 38%), the results this time were also negative. Even when support for the new constitutional project had been growing in recent weeks,[1] only 44% of Chileans voted in favour of it on Sunday, while the other 56% rejected the proposal.

What do these results mean for Chile and the rest of the region? And what does the future entail for the politics of the South American country? At least in the near future, a third attempt to change the current constitution has been ruled out. Thus, politics is likely to refocus, with Chileans now fatigued by this process and more concerned about other domestic matters, such as crime and the economy.

To address these questions in more detail and understand what was behind Sunday’s results, we must first backtrack a few years to explain how Chile got to this point.

Background: what led to this process?

The consecutive democratic governments that led Chile since Pinochet lost the 1988 plebiscite and left power in 1990 did not achieve to build the inclusive institutions that most of the population was already expecting by the end of the 2010’s. According to Ipsos Global, even when Chile’s economy had grown from a GDP of 71.8 billion US$[2] in 1990 to 260.8 billion in 2018, around 68% of the population agreed with the statement: “the economy is rigged for the rich and the powerful” (compared to 57% in Canada for example).[3] During that period, substantial protests were organised to criticise issues such as the education and pension systems. Simultaneously, demonstrations were conducted in support of various causes, including women's rights, LGBTQ rights, and indigenous rights.

It was in this context that, after two governments led by the human rights activist and socialist leader Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010 / 2014-2018) and during the second presidential period of conservative politician and businessman Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014 / 2018-2022), a much larger social outbreak emerged in October of 2019. Initially, the rise in the price of metro tickets sparked the outrage of a group of students, but quickly, the movement grew to a much more profound critique of the system. By the end of that month, 67% of Chileans believed that the main reason for the protest was that “people got tired of the cost of living, price increases, the level of salaries, the quality of health, the amount of pensions, among others”.[4] While many of the protests were peaceful, others reached worrying levels of violence and destruction of public and private property.[5] After many attempts by President Piñera to calm the situation by other means, his government conceded to one of the most vocal demands: to call for a new Constitutional Assembly to write a new Constitution. Though it did not do so thoroughly, this decision finally did help to calm down the protests (they stopped completely later, primarily due to the pandemic, though).

In the last two months of 2019, the Chilean Congress passed a constitutional reform to make it possible to call for a Constitutional Assembly, an innovation to a region where new Constitutions were usually written ignoring the previous rules. After this, Piñera’s Government called for a referendum on whether the people wanted a new Constitution or not and what type of organism should write that Constitution.

First attempt and objections to the current constitution

The first referendum took place in October of 2020: 78% voted in favour of changing the Constitution, while 79% voted for the project to be drafted by a ‘Constitutional Convention’ entirely elected by the people, instead of 50% of it being composed by seating members of Congress. Thus, in May of 2021, Chileans went to the polls again to elect the first Constitutional Convention members. Considering that Piñera’s government was right-wing leaning, that the protests had been led mostly by independent and left leaning leaders and the longer-term tendency in Latin America to vote against incumbents,[6] it was no surprise that this first Convention mainly was composed of left and independent leaders.

This first group, however, failed to see further ahead from those results and drafted a document that was too far to the left of the median Chilean voter. There was no serious effort made to understand what was being demanded, what were the objections to the current Constitution, or to make compromises across political parties for long-term democratic stability. Thus, their project was finally rejected by 62% of Chileans in September of 2022. The two main reasons behind the vote against that draft were “the way the convention representatives worked” (31%) and because it would have created “too much division” among Chileans (26%).[7]

The current Chilean Constitution, though approved by Pinochet’s regime in 1980, has been reformed over 70 times. In 2005, when 58 of those reforms were published, the socialist and then President of Chile Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) even formally signed the document and stated “finally a democratic Constitution, in line with the spirit of Chile”.[8]

However, no clear consensus emerged at any part of the process about what specifically needed to be changed in the current text. Surely, Constitutions should only contain the most basic rules for making it possible for societies to live peacefully. From a liberal point of view, it should define the government's roles and limits, state the game's rules, and establish the fundamental values and rights. Everything else should be left to the political process. There should be enough space for administrations of different tendencies to govern and implement public policies. If this is not achieved, each different party or coalition that reaches the Government will always have incentives to try to change the Constitution again.

The second plebiscite: What did the text propose, and why was it rejected?

While the vote on the first constitutional draft was rejected mainly because the public perceived the text to be too left-leaning, one of the main reasons the second one was also rejected was because of the opposite reason. Right after the failure of the first attempt, the country celebrated general elections where the former student leader and socialist activist Gabriel Boric defeated ultraconservative Jose Antonio Kast in a second round, after neither achieved a majority in the first round. It should be noticed that this was the first time since the 1990s that the centre-left coalition previously led by Bachelet (Concertación de partidos) did not dispute the second round with the centre-right coalition previously led by Piñera (Alianza), signalling a rejection sentiment all across the political establishment.

The presidential election result gave Boric the legitimacy to initiate a second constitutional reform attempt, this time having first a draft prepared by experts and then handing this text to an elected Constitutional Commission to approve a final draft and put it to vote. However, in the elections for the members of this new Constitutional Commission, the right-wing parties – particularly the Republican Party – won most of the seats, probably partly because it was now a left-leaning government leading the process. As it happened last time, the members of the new Constitutional Commission were not able to produce a document acceptable to the Chilean median voter. Even Bachelet campaigned against it. According to Ipsos, the two main reasons Chileans voted against the new project were that they did not trust that the Commission had drafted a good proposal (21%), and that the text endangered already existing social rights (20%).[9] Votes against the project were more prominent in wealthier areas of the country.

Results meaning and way forward: no third attempt on sight

Hardly anyone could claim victory out of Sunday’s results. The fact that the Constitution will now remain the same and not be subject to further plebiscites or a third attempt to change it – Boric recently confirmed in a speech – seems to be a defeat for the government and the groups that propelled the process. However, the failure of this second draft is a political setback for the right, particularly for Kast's Republican Party. It represents a missed opportunity for the party to be recognised as the driving force behind the approval of a new democratic Constitution, ultimately ending the grievances of those who protest that the current one was approved during the era of Pinochet.

If one thing is clear, Chileans now want their politicians to re-focus on domestic issues, such as combating crime and improving the economy. In July, these were the two issues that mainly concerned Chileans (crime 59%, inflation 35%), followed by inequality (31%), unemployment (29%), corruption (29%) and control of immigration (28%).[10] In November, 57% manifested in favour of the government’s will to end the debate on changing the constitution for the remaining period. [11] Only 27% were in favour of starting a third attempt.

Both the recent electoral results in Chile and their corresponding campaigns suggest that the country is currently far from an appropriate context to reach a large societal consensus, as is required to agree on the minimal content of a new Constitution. On the contrary, polarisation has risen across the country, as in many other parts of the world. Thus, it may be wiser for Chile to abandon this project in the near future and to focus on building more inclusive institutions that people demanded and which motivated the 2019 protests. These could include continuing to implement, minor, and more progressive changes to the Constitution, just not drastically pushing the re-start button.

Javier Albán González is a lecturer on constitutional law and electoral analysis at different universities in Lima/Peru.