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Reconstructing Legitimacy After Crisis: The Chilean Path to a New Constitution

Abstract

Social movements have contested the elitist character of Chilean political institutions in the streets for the past two decades. Citizens have distanced themselves from conventional participation, and turnout rates dropped dramatically. Protesting against unequal treatment and demanding “dignity,” the social uprising in 2019 in Chile consisted of massive protests marked by large-scale demonstrations and violent riots alike. Lasting many weeks, the protest-driven crisis opened up the opportunity for a constitutional change. Political elites agreed on a referendum on a new constitution to channel heterogeneous demands put forward by leaderless and inorganic protests and demonstrations. This critical juncture brought about by the social uprising set in motion institutional change that, confirming theoretical expectations, entirely departs from the status quo. Furthermore, amidst a profound representation crisis, social organizations pushed for reforms in the electoral system to select conventional delegates to restore confidence and legitimacy in representative institutions. Based on evidence that diversity in elective bodies boosts perceptions of legitimacy, proposals included gender parity in both nominations and results, the possibility for independent candidates to run in lists, and reserved seats for indigenous peoples. The result was a constitutional assembly with 50% of women, delegates from ten indigenous peoples, and many independent candidates elected. Time will tell if this constitutional assembly manages to rebuild Chileans’ trust in politics.

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Notes

  1. See Múltiples puntos de evasión masiva en el Metro marcan la quinta jornada de protesta, El Mostrador, October 18th, 2019. Available at https://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/multimedia/2019/10/18/multiples-puntos-de-evasion-en-el-metro-marcan-la-quinta-jornada-de-protesta/.

  2. Leaderless protests are always challenging to understand, mainly when demands are diverse and multiple. In Chile, surveys show that the 2019 protesters “tend to be young and educated, relatively interested in politics [… are] intense users of social media. They strongly identify with the political left, but do not hold radically different views about desired levels of equality or the role of government. However, they perceive higher inequality levels, are more skeptical of meritocracy […] Protesters value democracy and are less authoritarian, but they are highly critical of how democracy works. […] protesters are much more likely to justify the use of force by citizens to achieve political goals while considering the use of force by the police to be illegitimate” (Cox et al. 2021, p. 3).

  3. The slogan “It is not 30 cents, it is 30 years” refers to the fare hike (30 pesos) and all civilian governments since the end of the dictatorship (30 years).

  4. Scholars and commentators alike put forward the notion that conditions were ripe for the emergence of radical populism from both the left and right of the political spectrum (Bellolio 2020; Rovira Kaltwasser 2020).

  5. However, the center-right government included a new political party, Evopoli, that was not staunchly against changing the 1980 Constitution. A representative survey of party elites conducted in 2016–2017 showed that almost 55% of Evopoli leaders favored a new Constitution, in contrast with less than 30% of the elites in the traditional parties of the right, the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI) and Renovación Nacional (RN) (Alenda et al. 2020b). Interestingly, amidst the protests, President Piñera designated an Evopoli leader as the new Ministry of Interior, Mr. Gonzalo Blumel.

  6. The Association of Mayors initially proposed a referendum on the Constitution as a political solution for the social crisis. This political initiative by local authorities was unexpected, given the centralization of the Chilean political system (Alenda et al. 2020a).

  7. The government saw the referendum as the last chance for blocking the constitution-making process through the vote. Also, the pact established the 2/3 rule with a blank sheet: “The center-left would have preferred a lower quorum (3/5 or absolute majority), and the center-right would have preferred to keep the 1980 constitution as the default text. The former accepted the 2/3 quorum because the latter agreed on the blank sheet. The latter accepted the blank sheet because 2/3 ensures broad agreements that include them” (Escudero 2021, p. 11). Party elites, divided in their support for a constitutional change, preferred to defer the decision to the people.

  8. This figure is below the regional average of 32% for Latin American nations–data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, available online at https://data.ipu.org/women-ranking (accessed on September 4, 2021).

  9. Comparative data from Centro de Estudios Públicos national surveys available at https://www.cepchile.cl/cep/site/edic/base/port/graficador.html (accessed on September 4, 2021).

  10. The debate in Congress of the gender parity reform also coincided with the worldwide phenomenon of Lastesis and their powerful performance “A Rapist in Your Way” (Un violador en tu camino). It helped translated feminist theories to everyday language. See “Latin America’s Radical Feminism Is Spreading,” The New York Times, January 28, 2020. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/28/opinion/latin-america-feminism.html.

  11. In districts in which an even number of seats are contested, 50% of men and women will be elected; when the number is odd, one gender cannot surpass the other by more than one elected delegate (Arce and Suárez-Cao 2020).

  12. The Mapuche people received seven seats, two for the Aymaras, and one seat for each of the following peoples: Quechua, Rapanui, Diaguita, Atacameño, Colla, Kawashkar, Chagán, and Chango.

  13. As the opposition competed in multiple lists, the decreasing proportionality sparked speculation about many possible outcomes. Many analysts predicted that independent lists would face greater difficulty in gaining seats. Also, as the right presented a unified list, it was expected to benefit from the majoritarian bias of smaller districts (Paul 2021).

  14. Even two months into the constitutional process, most surveys show that the Convention enjoys 50% of trust, well above the levels of trust in other representative institutions. See Cadem, available online at https://cadem.cl/plaza-publica/.

  15. Arguably, money is a relevant factor to consider when analyzing candidates’ potential success. There is evidence that in the 2017 legislative elections, women candidates received less money than men in party transfers (Piscopo et al. 2021). However, for 2021 conventional elections, the tendency reversed and parties funded women more than men compensating that men received more private funding (Gazmuri et al. 2021).

  16. The evidence presented by Belsey et al. (2017) shows that stricter quota laws, such as gender parity in the Chilean case, raised the competence of elected officials by reducing the election of mediocre men.

  17. The importance of diversity was also established when delegates chose Elisa Loncon, a Mapuche woman representative, as the President of the Constitutional Convention. See “Mapuche woman to lead body drafting Chile’s new constitution,” Al Jazeera, July 4, 2021. Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/4/indigenous-mapuche-woman-to-lead-body-drafting-chile-new-constitution.

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Funding

The author acknowledges the financial support of the Chilean Agencia Nacional de Investigación y y Desarrollo (ANID), FONDECYT Regular Project #1191083.

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Correspondence to Julieta Suarez-Cao.

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Suarez-Cao, J. Reconstructing Legitimacy After Crisis: The Chilean Path to a New Constitution. Hague J Rule Law 13, 253–264 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40803-021-00160-8

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