The winner-takes-all mentality in politics is always a losing proposition for society. Sooner or later, any practice of democratic governance that does not take into account the legitimate interests of everyone in society — not just those with the upper hand at the moment — will end, at best, in a reactive electoral rout and, at worst, in social unrest or even military coups. Chile has just gone through that cycle again. On Sept. 4, a proposed constitution drafted by what was heralded as the “most inclusive” assembly ever was crushingly rejected in a popular plebiscite where voting by all citizens was mandatory.
Some background. In the wake of massive demonstrations in 2019 against persistent social inequality, Chileans voted in a referendum to draft a new constitution that would supplant the standing document promulgated during the transition to civilian rule from Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian junta, which overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende in a brutal military coup in 1973. Though that constitution was significantly amended in 2005 by then-President Ricardo Lagos to remove the most egregious clauses that privileged the military, he did not have sufficient clout in the Chilean Senate at the time to get rid of the basic clause that, by restricting the state’s role in the economy, severely limited its capacity to address social concerns. During the dictatorship, laissez-faire ideologues, determined to purge society of any residue of socialist sentiment from the Allende years, joined the rule of the military and the market at the hip and enshrined it in law. As Lagos explains in an interview with Noema this week, it was those constraints of “the subsidiary state” imposed by the free-market dictatorship that laid the seeds of the 2019 social explosion and the demand for a new constitution. “That explosion took place,” the former center-left president told me, “despite so many advances in other areas including steady economic growth and reducing the Gini coefficient of inequality under the center-left governments of myself and Michelle Bachelet — because the ratio of tax revenue to GDP remained at around 20%, thus crippling efforts to expand the social safety net and public goods.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that when the left-behind finally got their chance to get ahead, they went too far. Instead of handing the constitution-crafting task to the political class, 155 ordinary citizens of various political stripes, from dentists to auto-mechanics, half of whom had to be women and 17 of whom had to be from Indigenous groups, were elected to draft a document that would govern society going forward. In the lead-up to the election of those delegates last year, the conservative political forces that normally win 35-40% in the polls insisted on a two-thirds vote for any proposed constitution to be presented in a plebiscite. But when delegates were chosen, the right-wing got only 20% or so of the vote, making them virtually voiceless with no veto power in the convention. Absent any brakes on their wish list of correctives to all of Chile’s very real social ills, the assembly skewed far left, proposing everything from a “plurinational” country with a different set of governing rules for the various Indigenous communities to the abolition of the Senate. In the mix among such extreme ideas were more broadly appealing progressive measures such as eliminating the “subsidiary state” clause to strong environmental protections and a 50% quota for women in government positions.