The Referendum in Chile

The Referendum in Chile

Why did Chileans vote to reject a new constitution despite widespread initial support?

"Rechazo" voters celebrate on September 4 in Santiago. (Jonnathan Oyarzun/Getty Images)

A year ago, ratifying a new constitution in Chile seemed to be a mere formality. But the referendum on September 4 led to a significant defeat for Chilean progressive forces. The “Rechazo” (reject) movement received almost 25 percentage points more than “Apruebo” (approve) in a poll where voting was mandatory (unlike in previous elections) and there was record participation. Various Rechazo elements demonstrated in the street to celebrate their victory over “revenge politics,” “radical Octoberism,” and a “refoundational” constitution that was opposed to the “soul of Chile” and the “common sense of Chileans.”

How did a process that began with a level of support rarely seen in the history of the nation manage to end in failure? What happened to the support for the constitutional process?

The process began on November 15, 2019. As a result of the massive social upheavals that October, Chilean political groups agreed to a timeline for the writing of a new constitution. The first stage was a plebiscite in which Chileans voted by an overwhelming majority (over 78 percent) to replace the existing Chilean Constitution and decided that a Constitutional Convention should be charged with writing it. These results were impressive, in terms of both the percentage of votes and their distribution across the country. The new constitutional process was voted down in only 5 of 346 municipalities. These five comunas included the three iconic Santiago areas where the national economic elite resides. Several commentators pointed out that this result showed the country wasn’t polarized between left and right; the divide was between the people and the elite. The image of a homogeneous people opposed to the elite was crystallized in references to “the three comunas,” a phrase that entered common parlance in political debates.

It was agreed that the Constitutional Convention would have gender parity and quotas for indigenous peoples, and, in keeping with the strong anti-party sentiments in the October 2019 protests, would provide opportunities for independent candidates to put themselves forward. Unaffiliated candidates were allowed to form slates like those put forward by political parties.

The convention election results were a blow to all those hoping for a return to the status quo. Longstanding political coalitions received scant votes. The right received a paltry 20 percent, a long way from the one-third threshold to wield a potential veto, while the center-left coalition saw its more moderate support collapse. Perhaps the most striking example was the Christian Democrats, which only managed to get one of its members, the party’s president, elected to the convention. But the standout feature of these elections was the tremendous success of independents linked to the 2019 upheavals. One hundred and three of the Constitutional Convention’s members were not connected to traditional parties. There was a clear majority for progressive sectors and, especially, for the political forces that emerged through the October rebellion and flew the flags of feminism, indigenous rights, and anti-elitism.

The country had high expectations for the process. Fifty-two percent described “hope” as the main emotion they felt, followed by “happiness” at 46 percent. So what happened to that 98 percent support and all the hope and happiness generated by the process? Progressive and left-wing forces will spend the next few years trying to work that out.


Provisional Reasons for the Defeat

As more data becomes available and the debate develops, we will fine-tune our analysis of what happened. For the moment, three causes can be pinpointed to explain the results of September 4:

  1. The rejection of the performance politics at the convention.
  2. The association of the convention with traditional politics.
  3. The reaction of traditional identities to the impact that subaltern identities had on the process.

Performance politics dominated the debate. The Constitutional Convention started to lose support, above all, among right-wing voters suspicious of what they viewed as a collection of activists for progressive causes. While some activists considered it a betrayal to stop mobilizing, even within corridors of power, some voters, particularly those championing order, saw nonstop mobilization as a veritable nightmare.

Several convention members had gained both notoriety and approval for their street performances, including costumes and provocative declarations on aspects of traditionalist identity. Street protests featured chanted slogans against authority. In the convention, those same attitudes were seen in quite another light. Additionally, an ethos of social mobilization persisted that tinged many of the actions in the convention with a testimonial quality. For some of these participants, it was important to advance maximalist, headline-grabbing, symbolic proposals that could never muster enough votes to be approved (one convention member proposed the dissolution of all organs of state and their replacement by popular assemblies). The media exaggerated these histrionics and the more inflammatory proposals, which were then blown up by fake news campaigns on social media. Videos of some of these declarations were aired by the Rechazo campaign and on television. What started as something picturesque and eye-catching in the end only inspired unease.

The coming together of the politics of the convention and traditional politics happened during a surge in anti-constitutional, anti-establishment feelings. According to data from the Center for Public Studies, the percentage of the population identifying with a party fell from 53 percent in 2006 to 19 percent in 2019. Some studies have indicated that a considerable slice of the population (12.9 percent) have fully embraced anti-party stances as their political identity. Initially, the convention derived strength from the perception that it was different from traditional politics.

Paradoxically, convention members’ performances and histrionics resembled Congress and traditional politics, where such practices abound. In any case, they made convention representatives appear no more efficient than traditional politicians in reaching agreements and advancing the demands of citizens. There was also a presidential election in the midst of the constitutional process that led to a change in the direction of government. The new government, especially President Gabriel Boric—a former congressional representative—was strongly linked to the constitutional process. Being against the constitutional process became a way of opposing the new government. Part of the energy against political institutions now flowed into the Rechazo camp.

Traditionalist sectors were inflamed by the first article of the proposed constitution, which consecrated Chile as a “social and democratic state with rule of law” and affirmed that this state would be “pluri-national, intercultural, and green.” It also assigned collective rights to indigenous communities and would establish an indigenous justice system.

The most common reasons Rechazo supporters gave for their vote was a negative opinion of convention members and “pluri-nationality.” The two proposals that were most decried, according to an Espacio Público-IPSOS survey, were the pluri-national state and the establishment of an indigenous system of justice. The Rechazo campaign was able to consolidate a support base from voters who identified with traditional views of the Chilean “soul” that they felt were threatened by the notion of pluri-nationality. This feeling was reinforced by the performance of some convention members, including declarations or actions contemptuous of the national anthem, the flag, and other patriotic symbols. Although these stances were not embedded in the text of the constitution, they became ammunition for the Rechazo campaign.


The Second Plebiscite

There were no major surprises in the approaches of Chile’s political forces to the “exit” plebiscite. All the parties from the Christian Democrats to the left voted Aprueba (although some leaders defied the official line). Every right-wing party backed Rechazo. Nonetheless, there were a variety of opinions in both camps.

Differences emerged during the campaign in the Rechazo camp between those who wanted to maintain the present constitution with minor adaptations and those who wanted an entirely new process. As the campaign progressed, the latter became dominant.

On the Apruebo side, there was more resistance to discussing what should happen after the vote if the new text was adopted. However, as the campaign progressed and Apruebo trailed in opinion polls, pro-government parties that favored Apruebo became open to the idea that the draft text required amendment. It was accepted that it was essential to commit to changes to allay voter concerns about issues like pluri-nationality. This was reinforced by a series of polls showing that Apruebo was not only not catching up to Rechazo, but that the vast majority of those preparing to vote Apreubo believed it was necessary to modify the text once it was approved. As the campaign neared its end, with differing levels of enthusiasm, these parties signed an agreement to implement such post-plebiscite changes.

A plebiscite that offered two options ended up in effect offering four: approve, approve and amend, reject, and reject and renew. In one of the final polls before the plebiscite, conducted by Cadem, 17 percent said they supported a straight reject, 35 percent a reject to renew, 32 percent approve to amend, and only 12 percent approve and implement the text as it emerged from the convention.

The rejection vote in the “exit” plebiscite was very different from the result of the first plebiscite on whether to replace the constitution. It wasn’t just substantially bigger but had spread far beyond “the three comunas.” Polls showed that Rechazo would win at every socio-economic level with no appreciable variation—an outcome that was confirmed on September 4. In working-class areas in the Santiago metropolitan region, where Apruebo should have swept the board, it managed victories only by small margins.

There was certainly a difference in the ideological profile of voters: Apreubo easily won those who identified with the left. Rechazo gained a majority from those who identified with the right and the center and those who didn’t identify with the left-right axis. There was also a marked difference in age groups, with Apruebo winning the generation between eighteen and thirty. Rechazo was victorious in every other age group. Unlike in the initial plebiscite, the Rechazo campaign succeeded in forging a more diverse social and political alliance than Apruebo.


Why Did Rechazo Win?

At this point there are two, not mutually exclusive interpretations for the decline in support for Apruebo and the rise of Rechazo. One emphasizes the “average voter” and sees a clean break with the ethos of the October 2019 protests; the other points to a reactive, traditionalist identity that was consolidated against the constitutional proposals and assumes that the social upheavals, while anti-elite, weren’t necessarily “of the left.”

In the first interpretation, the initial plebiscite and the convention were marked by a visible opposition between the people and the elite. This configuration of political forces largely erased distinctions between left and right and the varied interests and visions of the citizenry. However, the period of conflict between “above” and “below” came to an end and was replaced by the classic antagonisms between left and right. Some polls showed Rechazo was associated with the struggle against narco-trafficking and for economic growth, while Apruebo was linked to the redistribution of wealth via social rights—stances typically aligned with right and left positions.

This perspective implies that the current constitution is to the right of average voters, while the defeated constitutional proposal would be to their left, explaining the strength of the “reject to renew” and “approve to amend” options. From this angle, the first plebiscite was won in the center of the political spectrum. This view suggests that the main deficit in the constitutional process was a lack of agreement on key issues, like the political system, with the right in the convention. In line with this theory, 77 percent of those surveyed stated they would prefer members of the convention reach compromise solutions, even though that might imply backing down on some demands, and 61 percent felt that convention members had failed to soften their positions.

The second interpretation suggests that the ethos of conflict between “above” and “below” hasn’t evaporated, but that in the course of the process, anti-elitism began to find its expression on the right. In other words, events over the last two years allowed the right to harness the sense of rebellion, even indignation, that had hitherto been the monopoly of the left. Rather than strengthening the moderate center, traditional social identities had been reinforced and politicized.

This reading suggests that the strength of the “approve to amend” and “reject to renew” positions reflect the fact that many citizens possess complex social identities that don’t clearly map onto the present political conflict. As political scientist Lilliana Mason explains, when adherents to a political stance are sharply socially homogenous, there is a tendency for emotional polarization to occur, while the existence of complex identities encourages de-polarization. It is thus possible that many individuals’ identities in terms of party, class, religion, age, ethnicity, or place of residence were tugged in opposite directions by the plebiscite, boosting the centrist positions in the debate.

Such a view suggests that the weakness of the constitutional process was its inability to incorporate these identities in the symbolic process of generating a new Magna Carta. In particular, there was little attempt to find a way of placing pluri-nationalism within a framework of inclusive patriotic feeling. This is self-evident from the more inflammatory declarations by some convention members, whose performances, now issued from a position of power, seemed disparaging rather than rebellious, and scornful of people who remain loyal to traditional national identities. Specific constitutional norms—like the boundaries between the justice system and indigenous autonomy—could also have been spelled out more explicitly to show how the concept of equality works in the context of diversity.


Third Time’s a Charm

A relatively broad consensus seems to exist that constitutional stalemate is not a viable option. And there is agreement that a new constitutional process should include citizen participation. It is likely that this will entail a call for a new convention, and a new exit plebiscite to ratify a revamped draft constitution. In other words, it is likely that Chile will face a third constitutional plebiscite within months.

The form this process might take is still under discussion. It will be shaped not just by the different interests in play, but by which of the two diagnoses described above wins out. If the Rechazo movement is seen as the product of a desire for a greater presence of the moderate center and a dialog between the left and right, then tensions will be concentrated around the options for independent candidates. One element running counter to this diagnosis is the fact that anti-party sentiments appear to be as strong as they were two years ago. According to a Criteria poll, 82 percent of those surveyed would prefer participants in any new convention not to be party activists; that isn’t meaningfully different than opinions held in October 2020. Nevertheless, the same survey indicates that a preference for “experts,” already backed by a majority two years ago, has grown from 63 percent to 80 percent. In contrast, support for participation of “ordinary, everyday individuals” has collapsed from 37 percent to 20 percent. This complicates any interpretation based on antagonism between “above” and “below” and strengthens the idea of facilitating a forum of debate more prepared to compromise.

Conversely, if the prevailing diagnosis emphasizes identity issues, the quota of seats stipulated for indigenous peoples in the constitutional process is bound to be challenged. Moreover, it is probable that any new process will feature much greater respect for symbolic, patriotic features. An important change in this sense was already visible toward the end of the original constitutional process: it wasn’t for nothing that a Chilean flag was chosen to symbolize the new constitutional text.

The challenge facing Chilean politics is to reach a new agreement that will finally allow the development of a new constitutional text that has widespread popular support. We would do well to remember how quickly support and hope for such a process can collapse if those expectations are betrayed.

Noam Titelman is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and an associate researcher at the Center for Public Systems at the University of Chile.

Translated by Peter Bush.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Nueva Sociedad.