‘A new Chile’: political elite rejected in vote for constitutional assembly

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Marcelo Hernández/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Marcelo Hernández/Getty Images

Chile’s established political elite has been roundly rejected at the polls six months ahead of a pivotal presidential election, as the country turned to a progressive new generation to write the next chapter in its history.

Resounding victories for leftist and independent candidates saw rightwing politicians crash to a dismal electoral defeats alongside those with links to Chile’s transition to democracy.

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Across two days of voting, Chileans cast votes for the 155 delegates who will write a new constitution to replace Augusto Pinochet’s 1980 document and the neoliberal model it enshrined.

People also voted for regional governors for the first time ever, as well as for councillors and mayors – with candidates backed by president Sebastián Piñera’s Chile Vamos coalition faring poorly in each case.

Crucially, with the government coalition’s list securing only 37 seats in the assembly, Chile’s traditional right-wing fell well short of the one-third bloc it had targeted to obstruct the inclusion of progressive articles the constitution.

Each bill must be approved by two-thirds of the assembly to be included in the document.

“Many people are saying that yesterday was the day that the transition to democracy finally reached its conclusion,” said Verónica Figueroa Huencho, an academic at the University of Chile’s school of public affairs.

“The participation of indigenous peoples and independent candidates in a gender-equal constitutional assembly is a launchpad for a new Chile.”

The 155-member assembly will include 47 independent candidates and 17 representing the country’s 10 indigenous groups, whose participation was guaranteed for the first time in Chile.

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Gender parity had been assured before the vote took place – for the first time ever in a national constitutional project – yet female candidates performed so well that the eventual adjustment ended up favouring men.

In late 2019, a mass protest movement exploded in Chile, targeting the country’s insulated and disconnected political elite as well inequalities engendered by the dictatorship’s economic model. From the mass of demands that arose from the demonstrations, a constitutional referendum was scheduled as political parties’ response to the crisis.

On 25 October 2020, Chileans headed to the polls for the plebiscite and an emphatic 78% of voters opted to draft a new constitution.

As people gathered in Plaza Italia in Santiago that night, dubbed Plaza Dignidad as it became the epicentre of the protest movement, the word “Reborn” was projected triumphantly onto a nearby building – but the rejuvenation of the political landscape was only finalised when Chileans came to vote this weekend.

Candidates who stoked the sentiments of the protests performed strongly, as did those without the baggage of political affiliation.

“This weekend we have seen the categorical rejection of the constitution and the political culture it fomented,” said Fernando Atria, a law professor who has campaigned in favour of writing a new constitution and was elected to the assembly over the weekend.

“The current constitution was designed to prevent transformation and progress, but our role now is to create a new political system that is capable of responding to the demands of the people.”

Candidates backed by the government also did poorly in local elections, losing important mayorships and failing to force their way into gubernatorial run-offs.

In an address from the presidential palace last night, Piñera recognised that Chile’s “traditional political forces” were “not in tune with people’s demands”.

“This is the triumph of social and political unity,” declared Santiago’s mayor-elect, Irací Hassler, in the city’s Plaza de Armas, flanked by several of the women who won their elections.

“This is the beginning of a significant change in the way we do politics. The protest movement, feminist strikes and socio-environmental movements are here to stay.”

Hassler usurped incumbent Felipe Alessandri, who was running for a second term backed by Piñera’s coalition, to claim the district in the heart of the capital for Chile’s Communist party.

A period of solemn introspection has begun for the country’s traditional political parties, including debate over potential presidential candidates.

However, the Frente Amplio, Chile’s main opposition coalition which had only recently fragmented and seen doubt cast over its future, managed to perform strongly.

Its presidential candidate, Gabriel Boric, a veteran of Chile’s 2011 education protests, profited from the rush of optimism that accompanied the vote to collect the signatures required to register his candidacy on Monday.

Chileans will vote in presidential and congressional elections in November this year.

Meanwhile, the constitutional assembly will have a maximum of 12 months to draft a new constitution, which will be ratified at the conclusion of the process by a plebiscite in which voting will be compulsory.

Until the vote takes place, the 1980 constitution will remain in force.

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