Chile Chooses Change: What October’s Vote Means for the Country

Chile Chooses Change: What October’s Vote Means for the Country

After the outbreak of protests in 2019, calls from Chileans for significant reform to overcome what they saw as an increasingly unequal and corrupt society grew louder and louder. In response, Chile’s political parties came to an agreement, pledging to hold a plebiscite for a new constitution. Though originally scheduled for 26th April, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led this vote to be postponed until 25th October. What has the outcome of the vote been, and what changes can we expect there to be in the coming months and years as a result?

Background

At the start of October 2019, a price hike on public transport in Chile’s capital, Santiago, sparked protests which grew from a fare-dodging campaign by students to encompass over 3.7 million protesters by the end of the month. The protests have been called the worst civil unrest since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. More than a complaint about metro fares, the protests represented the frustration of a growing number of Chileans about high levels of income inequality and a rising cost of living which Chile’s pension system and minimum wage are increasingly unable to cover.

Though protests dwindled over the remainder of 2019, the situation worsened again at the end of January this year after incidents such as the death of Jorge Mora, a football fan run over by a police vehicle in the midst of a disturbance outside Santiago’s Monumental stadium. Mora’s death is just one example of recent controversy surrounding Chile’s police force, known as the Carabineros. The Carabineros faced broad criticism this October after an officer was recorded throwing a 16-year old boy from a bridge; protesters have pointed to these and other incidents as proof that a Pinochet era-style attitude of aggression still exists in Chile’s police that needs serious reform.

In response to the unrest, President Sebastián Piñera announced a range of reforms in education, healthcare and the country’s pension system. Most importantly, ten parties in government and the opposition signed an agreement to hold a plebiscite on a new constitution. 

The Vote’s Outcome

Turnout for the vote on 25th October was around 51%, slightly higher than the turnout for 2017’s presidential election. Those who voted were overwhelmingly in favour of constitutional change, with 78% in favour. 79% of voters expressed their preference for a fully elected constitutional convention to draft the new constitution, as opposed to a mixed convention split between sitting members of Chile’s Congress and elected citizens. The election to determine the constitutional convention is set to occur in April 2021; the new constitution is set to come into force in 2022 after another referendum to ascertain the public’s approval or disapproval of the new document. 

The vote for a fully elected constitutional convention arguably opens up the possibility for a new constitution that departs more radically from the current one. A fully elected convention would mean an ostensibly lower level of influence from Chile’s political establishment and the more active involvement of civil society groups. On the other hand, the fact that Chile uses the d’Hondt method for its electoral process might mean that the new constitution will not be so different from the current one. This is because the d’Hondt method favours large parties and coalitions. Consequently, if candidates for the constituent assembly organise along political lines to increase their electoral advantage, the constituent assembly may end up resembling Congress anyway.

Constitutional Consequences

What can we expect now that Chile has voted in favour of a new constitution? In the short term, it is reasonable to expect that Chile’s economy may be detrimentally impacted by political and economic uncertainty, already present since the protests erupted last year and enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is possible that, in anticipation of constitutional changes that may negatively affect businesses such as new or strengthened regulations, businesses (particularly foreign companies) will scale back investment in Chile. This possibility ties into a risk which critics of constitutional change have raised: namely that if the constitution leads to increased public spending on welfare schemes and enshrines greater state involvement or intervention in the country’s economy, Chile will be detrimentally affected in the longer term. They fear that such changes would discourage investment and curb growth.

On the other hand, some of the changes which opposition groups have been calling for are likely to benefit the country’s growth, at least in the longer term. Calls to enshrine new or expanded systems of education, healthcare and social support in the new constitution, if implemented, are likely to help Chile enhance productivity and build a more skilled workforce. Similarly, if the new constitution is successful in promoting political transparency and discouraging corruption, foreign investment is likely to take a positive turn. Either way, the success of the campaign for constitutional change is very likely to diffuse the tensions and agitation which have been apparent in Chile since the 2019 protests and thus provide a valuable opportunity for people to move on from these political tensions and for businesses affected by the protests to recover.

One area where constitutional change is likely is regarding the status of water: Chile’s current constitution enshrines a person’s right to have private ownership of water resources separate from the land the water is in or flows through. This led to the privatisation of many water sources in Chile and the treatment of water as a tradeable commodity; this system has been criticised for leading to inequality of water access and for contributing to environmental issues such as the problem of water conservation. Efforts to make water a public good are likely to reduce tariffs, benefitting small farmers, and contribute to progress on these issues.

October’s plebiscite represents a momentous turning point for the country; though constitutional change is likely to have risks in the short term, the indications for long-term growth are promising.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

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