The Left after constitutional defeat in Chile

by Oct 7, 2022All Articles

After a crushing defeat of its proposed constitution, Chile’s Left must regroup around universal material reforms.

CHILE’S CAPTIVATING PROCESS OF systemic change has derailed. A mass rebellion forced politicians to concede a constituent process, after elections gave insurgent forces control of the constituent assembly. Then a new Left won the presidential run-offs last December. But Chileans voted decisively against the assembly’s proposal. The crushing referendum came 52 years to the day after Chileans voted for Salvador Allende’s road to socialism.

Until recently, hope remained high that Chileans had embarked on a new road to radical reform. In the October 2020 plebiscite, held one year after the 2019 rebellion, Chileans overwhelmingly demanded a constitutional rewrite by an entirely new set of representatives. Defiant optimism still pervaded months later, when the president’s newly minted coalition received nearly 20% of convention election votes. A loosely assorted slate of radical autonomists took another 15%.

Since then, the heady public fervor has faded. Although Gabriel Boric triumphed handily in the runoff elections for president, he placed second, with just 25 percent of votes, in the election’s first round. A new hard right gained significantly, and turnout remained stuck below 50 percent. Boric’s approval rating tumbled almost immediately following his March inauguration. So, adopting the proposed charter was crucial for the continuity of the reform process underway. Instead, in a sharp reversal from the opening plebiscite, more than 60% of voters rejected a constitution deemed the most progressive in the world.

Why is Chile’s political revolution in jeopardy?

Many pundits and politicians are blaming the radical excesses of the convention, the charter draft and Apruebo Dignidad, the Left coalition in power. Establishment voices claim the rebuke at the polls proves Chileans are a moderate populace. They are unequivocally calling for a restoration of progressive neoliberalism that reigned from 1990.

New Left militants, by contrast, insist that a biased campaign prevented them from fairly and accurately conveying to voters the new charter’s manifold advantages. Millionaire meddling, fear mongering, and fake news muddled Chileans’ ability to vote according to their interests. Both views ultimately hold ordinary Chileans responsible for the crushing defeat. The former praises while the latter condemns.

Both views are wrong. Crucially, they miss the underlying causes of the defeat. Millions of politically inactive, and organisationally unmoored voters were obligated to cast their ballots. Voting, for the first time in this process, was mandatory. And the Left prioritised myriad identity politics, social-justice concerns over class-wide material rights and protections. Decades of neoliberalism pummeled working sectors, fragmenting them and intensifying insecurity and resentment. Rather than addressing these concerns, the constituent process exacerbated the mistrust of swathes of ordinary Chileans.

The constitution was not too far Left. Rather, it exalted a set of particularist outlooks and causes that today masquerades as radical politics. This “radicalism” undermines a more effective, class-oriented politics founded in universal reforms with broad appeal among all working and poor layers. In eclipsing a democratic socialist program, it facilitates corporate and media manipulation. Neither are Chileans inherently conservative or incapable of discerning their interests. They were presented with a bevy of special rights for the most marginalised. These rights buried the universal social provisions included in the proposed charter. Faced with this, ordinary voters reasonably suspected the draft would fail to adequately advance their interests.

Workers have spent more than a decade building the social power required to win systemic reforms, so this amounts to the squandering of an extraordinary opportunity. It goes without saying that powerful forces arrayed against Chile’s reform process. But when toiling masses have a unique shot at change, the Left cannot waste it. The resulting damage is incalculable.

We gave them 80, they returned less than 40 

The reversal in vote shares for and against a new constitution, relative to the 2020 plebiscite, was dramatic. In the opening plebiscite, 78 percent affirmed the desire for a constitutional overhaul. In the vote on the constitution, 62 percent declared that the draft on offer was not the new charter they wanted. A closer look, however, reveals that precipitous drops in apruebo votes did not drive the crushing reversal. In fact, although no comunas in Greater Santiago increased votes in favor, pro-apruebo turnout largely held, declining only modestly throughout. What changed was that there was a massive enlargement in the electorate, because registration was automatic and voting was mandatory. Turnout for the 2020 plebiscite was 55.5 percent. This time, it was 88 percent.

Leftists hoped the change would bring out poor and young voters who typically sit out elections. They could be expected to sympathise with the proposed constitution. Boosted turnout, they felt, would prove particularly impactful in Santiago’s largest and densest comunas. After half-a-million attended the apruebo campaign’s closing rally the Thursday before the referendum, optimism grew that the capital’s popular districts would tilt the balance. Instead, while voting did swell to historic levels, it ultimately favored opponents of the new constitution.

In sum, with larger layers of the electorate compelled to vote, growing swathes of ordinary Chileans manifested their disapproval. Record turnout left no room for doubt.

Voto castigo against the radicals, not radical reform

“Wake up Chile” – the placard of a protestor in Santiago, the day after the new constitution was rejected. 62 percent declared that the draft on offer was not the new charter they wanted.

This punishment at the polls, or voto castigo, did not sanction the beneficial social provision that the charter guaranteed. What was rejected were the dubious identity politics trimmings that came wrapped in, along with their self congratulatory, and at times histrionic, authors. So 40 percent of rechazo voters felt the delegates generated distrust whereas less than 12 percent feared public health, education, pensions and housing infringed on individual freedom and property rights. In a post-defeat self-criticism, an autonomist delegate described the convention as “a series of performances that affected the entity’s credibility.”

Chileans rebelled in 2019 against the insecurity wrought by the country’s savage labour markets and prevailing commodification of social goods and services. They voted overwhelmingly in 2020 to replace the pro-market constitution imposed under military rule. This was a demand, however tacitly, for foundational laws mandating guarantees of universal health care, dignified pensions, free and quality education, living wages and labour protections, and public goods such as water.

These rights made it into the draft, but were drowned out by statements on gender protections, ethno-national rights, and care for mother nature. The overweening emphasis on special prerogatives for oppressed and marginalised sectors and on lofty abstractions made it difficult to persuade poor and working people that the proposed charter would meet their common basic needs.

Two months before the vote, a majority felt delegates had given insufficient attention healthcare, education, and economic wellbeing. They had devoted too much to attention to “feminism” and “plurinationality”, or recognition of indigenous nationhood within the Chilean state. It is not that Chileans object to gender equality and indigenous rights. After all, voters welcomed the gender parity and indigenous quotas mandated in the 2020 plebiscite. More accurately, millions felt the convention and its draft neglected the broad demands behind the rebellion. The extreme lopsidedness of constituent politics promoted a false incompatibility between universal protections and the rights of oppressed groups.

Despite rising suspicion and bitterness, Chile’s new Left failed to react adequately. It operated on the conceit that 2020’s 80 percent approval rendered apruebo in the exit plebiscite all but inevitable. But the rebellious and optimistic mood of 2019 began fading when the new Left assumed the task of translating mass grievances into concrete and convincing policy. Covid hit, the economy and employment tanked, and crime and violence affected more and more working people.

As doubt grew and the opposition launched concerted attacks on the new government and on the constituent assembly, backing for apruebo experienced a steady decline. Rather than redirect overwhelming attention to the draft’s universalist social provision, its defenders allowed opponents to set the terms of the debate. When fake news proliferated, the Left turned its moralising into frenetic condemnations of post-truth politics. When the right denounced the convention’s radical extravagance, instead of campaigning on its social democratic elements, leftists doubled down on a defense of noble identity politics causes.

Recent polling reveals that among apruebo supporters, majorities voted for guaranteed “social rights in education, health and housing” and the “structural changes the country needs”. Only 10% voted to achieve a “feminist and ecological constitution” or a decentralised state, and just 4% wished to grant the Mapuche more autonomy. Meanwhile, large proportions of rechazo voters cited general uncertainty and indigenous autonomy as key reasons for opposing the proposal.

Opposition to indigenous recognition and rights should not be attributed to overarching racism. The mistrust and resentment promoted by the Left’s moralistic promotion of indigenous rights was not limited to the non-Mapuche majority. In Lumaco, where half the population is Mapuche, over 80% voted rechazo. In Galvarino, 75 percent did so even though the same proportion is Mapuche. Alto Bio-Bio, site of community fights against mega-dams, is 85 percent Mapuche, yet only 28 percent approved the charter.

It turns out plurinational recognition and cultural rights are not essential priorities even among the population they are meant to benefit. Like others, indigenous Chileans want physical and material security.

Deeper neoliberal disintegration

The rise of the new Left, and the growth of social movements that engendered it, came about over four decades of neoliberalism. Savage, free-market expansion politicised Chilean masses in ways that contrast decisively with the politicisation that produced the road to socialism under Allende. Mid-twentieth century developmental capitalism helped incorporate toiling sectors into a common programme of materialist reforms; neoliberal capitalism separated working and poor Chileans from shared politics, scattering them among fragmented grievances. Neoliberal development’s detrimental effects on popular sector politics stems partly from its impact on rising mass movements. Industrial disintegration and agrarian restructuring scattered working people. It pushed them to confront myriad challenges in various social realms. Fragmentation and marginalisation of labour structured grievances along these multiple axes.

A march in support of Salvador Allende in 1970. Over the last four decades, savage, free-market expansion politicised Chilean masses in ways that contrast decisively with the politicisation that produced the road to socialism under Allende.

When resistance took on collective form, it targeted specific issues. Students rebelled against the deterioration of public schools and rising debt; the elderly protested against the indignities of private pensions; poor neighborhoods organised against polluted communities; women confronted violence, harassment and insecurity; and indigenous groups fought back against the encroachments on their diminished land base.

Localised fights against mounting precariousness gradually built up organisational resources that eventually sustained mass mobilisation. Yet expanding popular capacities remained focused on specific issues and never coalesced with revitalised labour struggles. As a result, particular demands—gender, ethnic, ecological, etc.—continued to eclipse systemwide reform programmes.

Neoliberalism also affected popular opinion through its direct impact on personal politics. Under liberalisation, working people find themselves inclined to confront economic insecurity through individual action. The habit of pursuing material security individually underpins suspicion of collective services and public goods. But neoliberalism shaped personal politics in another key way. The neoliberal turn severed ordinary people from the basic fabric of civic and partisan life.

In Chile, most working people have been cut off from organised public affairs for decades. The decade-long upsurge of protest eading up to the estallido, the rebellion itself, and the constituent process, did not significantly alter this political isolation. Mass movements have swelled and grown in influence, but they have not drawn the average worker into their politics and programmes; the Frente Amplio even less so. When millions of alienated Chileans turned out to vote for the first time, no institutional networks linked them to the new Left’s culture and policy proposals. Many rejoiced during the rebellion; even more endorsed discarding the dictatorship’s 1980 constitution. But they were isolated organisationally and programmatically from the new Left. So millions did not see their core concerns recognised and reflected in the behaviour and output of the convention. Rather than carefully weaving new partisan and policy affinities, Chile’s radicals exacerbated popular detachment and bitterness.

Way forward for the Left

In sum, Chile’s political revolution has hit a wall. But if Chile’s systemic reform process has stalled, the Left should not capitulate. Leftists must oppose the restoration of progressive neoliberalism, not via obstructionism bur rather through a steadfast defence of vigorous state regulation of markets and public social provision. The Left must use the positions of power it has painstakingly won since 2013 to relentlessly press for this policy agenda.

At the same time, and crucially, radical reformers must dispense with narrow social justice orientations in favor of universalist politics and protections. This does not mean abandoning the rights and equality of groups suffering particular forms of oppression. It entails placing class-wide demands at the forefront. It means demonstrating that there is no competition between universalist protections and sectoral injustices. Rather, the fulfilment of the former provides the strongest foundation for addressing the latter. While the plebiscite tells us what went wrong, it also indicates where to press forward. In spite of the confusion and resentment, the neighborhoods and worksites where the most advanced sections of Chile’s working sectors live and toil upheld their votes for reform. Santiago’s large workingclass townships delivered massive support.

Relative to the elevated hopes nursed by the rebellion and Apruebo Dignidad’s rapid ascent, these outcomes offer scant consolation. But they represent a solid foundation on which Chile’s Left must regroup into a universalist, democratic socialist movement. Not only will these sections fight for class-wide reforms. When organisationally connected to it, they will discipline the New Left so that increasing layers of working Chileans are drawn to, rather than alienated by, radical politics.

René Rojas is on the faculty of Binghamton University’s College of Community and Public Affairs and is an editorial board member of Catalyst. He spent years as a political organizer in Latin America. 

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