On Saturday afternoon, on the eve of the constituent plebiscite, I sat down to watch the television slots with the political messages of the proponents of approval and rejection. Chile has a good public communication system in which television and radio provide time for political groups to present their ideas and call for votes. The so-called electoral strip is free and is legally regulated, lowering campaign costs and democratizing access to information. In my political systems course next week we will be looking at the constitutional process and I wanted to bring a couple of good examples to share with the students. It was not an easy task.
On the #rejection side there were very good spots that, inviting people to vote against the proposed constitution, emphasized its divisive character and delved into the essence of the message: “New constitution yes, but this one no”.
However, on the #approval side, not only the spots they were of poor quality, but the messages ranged from a vulgar enthusiasm to the lavishness of rights of the new Magna Carta, from labor demands to the right to housing, throwing as a whole great dispersion of the message and plot poverty.
In addition to having important flaws in their political communication, the proponents of the approval were played against by the electoral system. Almost two years ago, in October 2020, Chileans had voted massively in favor of drafting a new Constitution. Close to 80% of the voters stated at that time that they wanted a new Constitution and that it be drafted by new constituents, instead of doing it partially by parliamentarians. New faces demanded the electorate, and effectively the electoral norm boosted them in the election of the constituents months later.
Another norm that played against the #approval was the mandatory vote. In Chile, voting had been mandatory until the 2010 election, with participation levels around 80%, while with non-mandatory voting the average participation is over 47%. The plebiscite, with a compulsory vote, once again raised traditional values in times of compulsory voting and encouraged those who are politically neutral and more apathetic, but also more centrist, to take sides.
Scraps of good intentions
The Constituent Assembly elected in May 2021 was full of new faces, fundamentally inexperienced, mostly oriented to the left, although fragmented and diverse. Two-thirds of the constituents lacked party affiliation, despite having experience as activists for worthy causes. They felt triumphant and delighted with the opportunity to build a country more similar to them and thus weaved a patchwork quilt with 162 sheets of good intentions, which expanded the rights of citizens but also exacerbated differences. They did it from an Assembly that was not up to the responsibility of drafting the new Constitution for Chile.
And it is that in addition to establishing the formal structure of the State, a constitution must articulate the basic consensus of a society. Because beyond the written piece of paper that results from the Constituent Assembly, there are practices and values that must support adherence to the law. Changing the constitutional framework of a country has a negligible impact on the stability of a democratic regime. A democracy does not succumb as long as the political actors have incentives to remain within the framework of democratic agreements and the acceptance of the electoral results. For the stability of democracy, and in general of the political system, the unwritten rules are as or more important than the written and constitutional rules, as Levitsky and Ziblatt maintain. In this sense and as a long-term coexistence arrangement, a constitution should never be approved by a simple majority, but rather by a social consensus.
A consensus like the one that approved the institutionality of the Constituent Assembly when it was elected, or like the one that until the beginning of this year affirmed that it would support the new constitution by 56%, with a rejection of just 33% (Plaza Pública, January 2022). By July of this year, however, there were already many elements that were making “noise” among voters: the elimination of the Senate or the idea that “not everyone is going to be equal before the law” (39%), or that ” with plurinationality, Chile runs the risk of being divided” (31%). (Feedback July 2022). Perhaps one of the triggers was the final offer to approve and then reform, which sounded too much like a shoddy job, or the fact that the most radical elements of the proposal, as well as its proponents, were amplified to act as a deterrent.
The fact is that Sunday’s result, 62% against and 48% in favor, sent a harsh message not only to the constituents, but also to President Boric, who had actively campaigned for approval.
“Pinochet revived”, polemicized in a tweet Colombian President Gustavo Petro, recently elected and an ally of President Boric. He is wrong. Chileans voted Sunday against Pinochet’s constitution and the new proposal, all at the same time.
Chile is a center country. More centrist than Colombia. Even though the ideological curve in both Colombia and Chile approaches normal behavior, with positions of the ideological center clearly in the majority, extremist positions in Chile are minor and very few people self-identify as “extreme right” or “extreme left.” .
Chile yesterday embraced the political center. I hope that both President Boric and the right in the opposition understand this. There is no greater value in a democracy than reaching agreements.