Chileans want a new constitution —just not this new constitution.

Democracy International

 

 

 

by Joe Mathews *

Two years ago, 78 percent of voters in Chile approved a convention to replace the country’s Pinochet-era constitution. But, on Sunday, 62 percent of voters in a mandatory referendum rejected the constitution approved by that convention.

What happened? While polls show voters want a new constitution, they distrusted the novelty and complexity of the proposal from the convention’s elected delegates—political neophytes who were chosen in a low-turnout 2021 election and were perceived as using the convention to pursue their own agendas.

Their proposed constitution, with 388 articles, would have been among the world’s longest governing documents. Critics also charged that the document, by locking so many policy details on so many different issues (from environmental regulation to social welfare) into the constitution, would have limited the democratic power of Chilean citizens, present and future, to make decisions.

But the rejection is not the end of Chilean constitution-making. It might be a new beginning.

Chile President Gabriel Boric, who supported the defeated constitutional proposal, is likely to work with legislators to offer their own new constitution, centered on the most popular parts of the defeated constitution. Boric and the country’s leaders are expected to convene a parliamentary commission, or perhaps a panel of experts, to do this work.

The trouble is that such a shorter, elite-designed version of the defeated document risks being rejected by a Chilean public eager for change. 

We’d suggest a more democratic approach in which voters themselves, not elected delegates, write the new constitution. A new Chilean constitutional convention could draw from the suite of democratic tools that British political scientist Matt Qvortrup and Democracy International European Program Manager Daniela Vancic call “Complementary Democracy” in their new book of the same name.  

Specifically, Chile might try a constitutional citizens' assembly, made up of ordinary Chileans drawn by lot, to draft a new, shorter proposal. Or it could convene a series of such assemblies on the local level and then combine their work into a national proposal. 

Such lottery-based panels, drawing from regular people rather than the politically engaged, would be less agenda-driven than the elected constitutional convention was. Similar “deliberative mini-publics” have a strong record around the world of producing focused and balanced recommendations that draw popular support.

A citizens’ assembly also would be more representative of Chile’s voters, who, after all, will have the final word on any new constitution.

Joe Mathews

 


* Joe Mathews is a contributor of Democracy International and California editor for Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angeles-based ideas exchange that combines daily humanities journalism and live events.

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