SANTIAGO — Chile is not about to reform its constitution, but draft a new one — from scratch. The referendum held on Oct. 25 sought to define the mechanism for this, namely a constituent assembly of 155 members, to be elected by direct voting on April 11, 2021.
The constituent assembly or "convention," will be equally divided between men and women, and envisages a membership quota for Chile's indigenous communities. It will draft a constitutional text over nine months, which may be prolonged for another three months.
This news is extraordinary for the context from which it emerged. In October 2019, Chile was facing a wave of mass protests, mostly peaceful though at times violent, which lasted more than two months. In the midst of this social explosion, which President Sebastián Piñera evidently could not appease, the country's main political forces agreed on an Accord for Social Peace that called for a constitutional plebiscite. A new constitution thus became a political strategy for ending a social confrontation that might have led to ugly places.
We still have to see if the new charter can resolve the country's crisis of legitimacy.
But now that it is going forward, we may wonder whether a new constitution was actually a central demand of our mobilized citizens? Undoubtedly, not. The men and women who took to the streets did not focus on any particular leader, group or political reform.
On the contrary, the demands were quite practical: better healthcare, decent wages, quality education, the end of private pension plans and reducing "structural" inequalities based on class, gender or ethnicity.
Still, we have come to realize that for both Chilean citizens and politicians, the 1980 constitution could no longer stand. Symbolically, the current constitution was drafted under a dictatorship and without civil participation. For many, that was its original sin. As the country faces a deep-seated crisis of legitimacy — expressed in scant levels of party affiliation, low trust in institutions and declining political participation — a new democratic constitution forged through debate seems both timely and necessary.
It remains to be seen of course whether the new charter can duly resolve the country's crisis of legitimacy. Such moments certainly provide opportunities for reflecting on the kind of country the public actually wants to build, and adopting changes that might otherwise be difficult to realize.
We also know that when people perceive decision-making processes as legitimate, they are more inclined to accept their results, even if they are not the ones they wanted. This alone is a good reason to be hopeful with the new constitution. Once the assembly drafts the text, it must be approved by two-thirds of members and then ratified by voters. If the Convention cannot in the time given it reach an agreement, then the current constitution, approved in 1980, will remain in force.
Yet even if it passes, a constitution alone can't resolve pressing issues like access to medicine, socio-economic inequality, gender discrimination, corporate abuses or employment levels. Nor is the current context helpful: the coronavirus has hit Chile hard, with more than 500,000 cases and jobless numbers at around 13% of the workforce and the economy expected to shrink 6.3%, according to World Bank figures. Polls show that generalized discontent still prevails.
We now must see if the political class is up to the challenges of this unique moment: if people's expectations are not properly managed and the country fails to come together around a shared project, it will be difficult to be optimistic about our future. New constitution or old.
*Castiglioni is head of the Social Sciences and History department at Chile's Diego Portales University.
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