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A woman in a face mask walks past a graffiti reading Chile Decides
‘Chile Decides’ whether to change its military dictatorship-era constitution at a popular referendum on Oct. 25. Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

Chile puts its constitution on the ballot after year of civil unrest

One year ago, Chileans took their anger over inequality and injustice to the streets, insisting that redressing the nation’s deep structural problems would require more than reform. They said Chile would need a new constitution with more rights and better social protections.

Soon they will learn whether the rest of the country agrees with their diagnosis.

On Oct. 25, Chile will hold a referendum that asks voters two questions: Should Chile convene a constitutional convention to write a brand-new constitution? If so, who should write that constitution – an assembly comprising half congressional representatives and half citizens, or an assembly comprising just citizens?

Experts predict voters will vote for a new constitution written by their fellow Chileans.

Our research on democratic governments and women’s political participation explains why Chile’s referendum is, to use a technical political science term, a big deal.

Countries usually write new constitutions only when wars end or when transitioning to democracy. And constitutional conventions composed solely of citizens are practically unheard of. Chile shows what frustrated people in democracies can achieve when they rise up.

A tale of two Chiles

Chile’s current constitution dates back to Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator who governed the South American country from 1973 to 1990.

Pinochet lost power in a 1988 referendum, highlighting the transformative potential of ballot initiatives in Chile. But even as Chile transitioned to free and fair elections, Pinochet’s legacy persisted in the country’s restrictive, dictatorship-era constitution. It defined an electoral system that limited the power of the left and favored incumbents, reducing turnover in office. The lack of electoral incentives for politicians to listen to voters created an insular and unresponsive political class.

For a while, these problems were masked by Chile’s booming economy. The economy grew, on average, 7% annually in the 1990s, and continued strong in the new millennium.

The economic boom reduced poverty, but the rich got much richer. Thanks to Chile’s free-market economic system – loosely based on the U.S. model but with less regulation – today the wealthiest 10% of Chileans receive nearly 40% of income in the country. Chile is one of the most unequal countries among developed nations, worse than the United States.

Chileans wave flags while standing on a graffiti-covered national monument.
Chile’s protesters won the right to choose their nation’s future, but not without bloodshed. Claudio Abarca Sandoval/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While Chile’s rich and corporations enjoy low taxes, its poor and elderly struggle with nearly no social safety net. While wealthy Chileans visit state-of-the-art private medical clinics staffed with U.S.-trained doctors, the poor rely on public hospitals where they must often buy their own syringes, bandages and drugs.

Chileans have long acknowledged this inequality, but the presidents who followed Pinochet – whether on the left or right – did little to alter this model.

Meanwhile, Latin American governments from Mexico to Brazil invested in comprehensive redistribution of wealth and passed laws implementing gender quotas for legislative candidates. Many amended their constitutions to clearly state that historically excluded groups like women and indigenous peoples enjoyed equal rights. Bolivia even wrote a new constitution in 2008 recognizing itself as a multiethnic country and protecting Indigenous language, culture and lands.

Chile tried to address simmering unhappiness in 2017, expanding the number of seats in congress, changing electoral rules to make races more competitive and introducing quotas for women candidates. But it was too little, too late.

What changed?

Chileans first took to the streets of the capital, Santiago, over an increase in public transit fares, on Oct. 14, 2019. Things turned serious – and violent – overnight on Oct. 18, as ever more people joined the demonstrations in what became known as “el estallido” – the explosion.

The following week, 1 million of Chile’s 19 million people marched for reform nationwide, with wide-ranging demands.

Student protesters wanted free higher education. Pensioners wanted a dignified retirement. Workers wanted better wages. Women and feminists wanted an end to gender violence.

Protesters believe a new constitution with more rights would create stronger mandates for such reforms. The protests paused only during the height of Chile’s pandemic lockdown in spring and early summer. They continue today.

Chilean feminists inspired a global trend with ‘El violador eres tú,’ a choreographed protest dance condemning violence against women.

This is not a bloodless movement. Iconic parts of downtown Santiago have been destroyed, two-thirds of the city’s metro stations were damaged and 11 were set ablaze and ruined. Police fired on protesters with rubber bullets, and many of those arrested reported extreme brutality, including sexual assault and even torture. Hundreds were wounded and 36 were killed between October 2019 and February 2020.

Violent repression didn’t stop the fury on the streets. A month into the protests, Chile’s congress agreed to hold a referendum on writing a new constitution, and to let voters decide who would draft it.

Gain and pain

If, as expected, everyday Chileans write the country’s new constitution, the decision-making power of the political class will be reduced.

Women will also have a greater voice in Chile’s future. Just two women were among the 12 authors of its Pinochet-era constitution. But feminist leaders and women in congress insisted “never again without women,” demanding that the citizens elected to the constitutional convention be half women.

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When the men in congress balked, the women stood outside the chamber chanting, “we are half, we want half.”

In December 2019 congress conceded. By law, half of the citizens who will write Chile’s new constitution must be women. This establishes a groundbreaking global standard for women’s political inclusion.

A woman in a face mask reading 'Sí apruebo.'
She’s voting ‘yes’. Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

The convention will also reserve seats for Indigenous peoples like the Mapuche, a marginalized group whose ancestral lands have been stolen by the government.

At a time when people worldwide are rising up to demand more equitable and responsive government, from Black Lives Matter in the U.S. to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Chile shows that sustained protests can bring sweeping change. Everyday Chileans, young and old, took exceptional risks to improve their country. Some paid with their lives.

Today, even as Chile’s COVID-19 death rates soar, Chileans are still out in the street, protesting inequality and campaigning on the referendum. They want their fellow citizens to vote “yes” on writing a new constitution and to give the pen to Chile’s people – not its politicians.

A newer version of this story was published on Oct. 26, 2020.

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