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Is a new political cycle opening in Chile?

Franck Gaudichaud and Pablo Abufom report on a second constitutional referendum held this past December in Chile to replace the Pinochet-era constitution for the country. This time around, Chilean voters rejected a proposed right-wing constitution after the defeat of a more progressive constitution in a 2022 referendum. This article originally appeared in Spanish in Jacobin América Latina and has been translated into English for our audience by Tempest member Héctor A. Rivera.

The rejection of the new right-wing constitution demonstrates a “national political” stalemate in which none of the social sectors in dispute have been able to impose its program. For the next stage, it is necessary to build a political force to strike together.

On Sunday, December 17, 2023, for the second time in just over a year, Chileans voted in a referendum “for” or “against” a draft of a new constitution, which would replace the one implemented in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and reformed several times since 1989. This new national election takes place four years after the great social revolt of 2019, which shook the neoliberal hegemony established in the Andean country for five decades, and two years after the election of Gabriel Boric, the young president of the progressive Left (supported in a coalition of the Communist Party (CP) and the Frente Amplio, in alliance with part of the old Concertación (establishment parties) that governed the post-dictatorship transition).

The first constitutional vote of 2022 was to “approve” or “reject” the proposal for a new constitution drafted by a convention with mostly anti-neoliberal representatives and with the participation of native peoples, social movements, and gender parity. It was a project that gathered decades of social struggles and aspired to a democratic Chile based on broad social rights. The new constitutional draft is the opposite since it was written by a council with an extreme right-wing majority, and with the [Chilean] Republican Party at the head, which deepened the political regime of the 1980 constitution and restricted social rights.

A class vote

Once again, more than 15 million Chileans were called to vote: 55.8 percent opposed the new constitutional text, although 15 percent of the voters did not go to the polls, despite the mandatory voting system with automatic registration (again in force since 2022). Once again, in the capital there was a class-based vote, as in the rest of the country: while the three richest municipalities of the country voted “in favor,” the popular municipalities of the south and west of the capital voted more than 60 percent, or even 70 percent, “against.” Only two regions of the Andean country voted overwhelmingly in favor of the latest draft of the Constitution, drawn up by the right wing.

However, big capital and its media have invested more than 130 million pesos [$143,000 USD] in the campaign to defend the new text and a constitution that would definitively prevent any legislation in favor of abortion, which would safeguard the private pension system, which would consolidate the commodification of water, education and health, and which would enshrine the prohibition of sector-wide collective bargaining, while still restricting the right to strike.

A defeat for Antonio Kast’s far-right party

In September 2022, more than 62 percent of the population had already rejected a constitutional proposal, but in this case, it was a clearly left-wing and feminist Magna Carta, which proclaimed a “plurinational” State and recognized new rights for Indigenous peoples. For many constituents, it was a matter of overcoming – at least in part – the neoliberal State and an extractivist and ecocidal development model inherited from Pinochet and his “Chicago Boys.”

In December, the new draft was also rejected, but in the face of a text written by the extreme right and the traditional right, within the framework of a process much more “controlled” by the traditional parties and the Parliament, attached to “technical committees of admissibility” and commissions of “experts.” The fifty members (elected in May 2023) of the Constitutional Council were led by a relative majority attached to the Republican Party of José Antonio Kast, a new extreme right that has emerged strongly in the last three years, which has emerged as a force of “return to order” against the collective rebellion of October 2019, against the powerful feminist movement and its demands, against the Boric government and its “late progressivism,” with an openly racist, anti-migrant, patriarchal, conservative and ultra-securitarian discourse.

In alliance with the right wing, the Republican Party believed it could draft a constitution in its own image and likeness, that of the “true Chileans” in the words of the president of the Council, the very reactionary and Lutheran fundamentalist Beatriz Hevia. With the result of the last referendum, the Republican Party has just suffered its first clear defeat. Above all, because Kast was already seen as a new presidential candidate with real possibilities of winning at the end of 2025. The knives are also out between the traditional conservative-neoliberal right-wing coalition (Chile Vamos), around figures such as Evelyn Matthei, and the Republican clan, each seeking to evade responsibility for the debacle. Dissidence is also appearing within the extreme right when some leaders or opinion leaders such as Axel Kaiser sought to create a “Libertarian Party,” even more radical than Kast and copied from Javier Milei’s model in Argentina. These differences and tensions within the right-wing camp are set to grow in importance during the coming months, creating a possible window of political opportunity for the social and political left.

A Boric government without initiative, a progressivism without reforms

The night of the result, President Boric spoke again of a national consensus, while confirming that the constituent process had come to an end after these two rejections, recognizing that the “social priorities” were now elsewhere. The young president, instead of taking advantage of this right-wing defeat at the polls, repeated a self-flagellating speech criticizing the alleged “radicalism” of the first constitutional proposal of 2021-2022, and rejecting any “polarization” of the country:

It is time to recognize the result achieved by those who voted against, but without forgetting that an important part of those who went to the polls voted for the option in favor. We cannot make the same mistake of previous referendums. The country is made by all of us and those who triumph in an election cannot disregard or ignore those who are thus defeated. Our country will continue with the current constitution because after two constitutional proposals were voted on, none of them managed to represent and unite Chile in its beautiful diversity. The country became polarized and divided, and regardless of this resounding result, the constitutional process failed to channel the hopes of having a new Constitution drafted for all.

In general, several government cadres recognize that this result gives some “fresh air” to a president who has become known for a weak capacity for change and some timid and contradictory reforms (advances in free health care, reduction of the working week and an increase to the minimum wage). Above all, what marks the Boric administration is its lack of will to confront the dominant and business sectors and to try to mobilize popular sectors “from below,” while, apart from the CP, it has no real link with the workers and subaltern sectors.

As a minority in parliament, locked in a parliamentary logic and management of the state apparatus, and having failed to impose his tax reform, Boric depends more and more on the Socialist Party and its allies (pillars of neoliberalism since 1990), which have entered with force in the government and are embodied by the Minister of the Interior, Carolina Tohá. Submerged in a case of corruption (Caso Convenios) and facing a systematic and terribly effective bombardment by the capitalist media that centered public debates on drug trafficking, insecurity, and the rejection of migrants, the government has to handle more than pushing its political agenda.

A small crowd is gathered outside in support of a new political constitution for the country of Chile. Three individuals are featured in the forefront, a man wearing a multicolored purplish shirt, a white surgical mask hangs around his neck along with a green scarf and he is gesturing positively with his hands, next to his left is a woman wearing a white surgical mask, blush shirt is waving a Chilean flag with her right hand while her left arm is crossed over her right shoulder, and another woman is on her left wearing a black hat that reads love in colorful lettering, a pair of sunglasses, jeans, and is holding a pink sign that reads in all caps “NUEVA CONSTITUCION AHORA” that translate to New Consituiton Now”
Chileans advocated for a new political constitution in 2022 to replace the Pinochet-era constitution originally implemented in 1980. The sign translates to “New Constitution Now.” Photo credit: Jose Pereira via Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

In addition, despite the protests of many honest militants and the criticism of leaders like the CP mayor Daniel Jadue [mayor of Recoleta since 2012], the government has continued militarizing the Mapuche territory known as Wallmapu, defending the Carabineros and broad impunity for those responsible for the repression of October 2019, and proposing laws that criminalize struggles for the right to housing. The presence of left-wing figures such as cabinet minister and spokesperson Camila Vallejo, does not change this general orientation, which is also provoking a great demobilization among the bases of the Frente Amplio [Broad Front] and the CP.

A new political cycle and perspectives for social movements

Undeniably, Sunday’s elections mark the end of a political cycle. Paradoxical elements of continuity can be discerned at the heart of these two referenda. Clearly, the crisis of hegemony, the rejection of the political “caste” and the dissatisfaction with the lack of solutions to the main popular demands are still with us, in different ways and with different strategic orientations. If we discount the profound impact that the media and social networks had on the electoral outcomes of both plebiscites, in any case, we can find that the vote “against something” outweighs the vote “for something.” This shows a situation of a national political stalemate, in which none of the actors in dispute manages to impose its program or convince the population of its proposals to close the crisis. Neither the massive eruption of the people in October 2019, nor the anti-neoliberal majority of the convention of 2021, nor the progressivism in government since 2022, nor the Pinochetist majority of the council of 2023: None of these expressions of the crisis has represented a way out.

In this situation, the main threat for the popular sectors in Chile is the successful emergence of a political force of the extreme right that manages to capitalize on the defeats of all the actors mentioned above. Needless to say that Milei’s triumph in Argentina influences this intuition. But in a scenario of political polarization, when a progressive government has been unable to fulfill its program, it is not unreasonable to imagine a right-wing/extreme-right government, and this explains why the main presidential figures in the polls today are Kast and Matthei.

Faced with this dreadful scenario, the Left and the social, feminist, and popular movements have an obligation to draw strategic lessons from the last four years. On the one hand, the programmatic moderation embodied by the ruling party has had an effect, and on the other, the disappointment of its electoral base and the renunciation of paths of popular mobilization to counter the parliamentary blockade of the opposition.

When faced with a stubborn opposition, the government prefers to remove its pretensions of change and ends up “successfully” approving projects stripped of their initial intention, it sends a clear message: in times of crisis, there is no alternative to programmatic faltering. There is no place for supporting a program of change on the social bases, calling on them to mobilize. Seen in this way, the government has given up precisely the little it can do in times of crisis and parliamentary blockade: to use that small fraction of power to force an open confrontation over the program and to make evident the positions of each actor in dispute. On the contrary, it has preferred to revamp the elitist high-level “politics of agreements,” without the people, which characterized the social-liberal center-left of the transition.

On the other hand, the Left and the social movements would do well to take advantage of these closings and openings to make a profound self-criticism of the organizational dispersion implied by sectoral struggles, each one in its own sphere or territory, without the construction of a common space to struggle for power around a broad program and class independence. A notable exception to this has been the case of feminism developed around the Feminist General Strike promoted by the Coordinadora Feminista 8M, which has sought to make feminism a global vision that can programmatically and organizationally confront a set of national problems.

In classical terms, this new cycle will confront the Left and the social movements with the problem of party building, in terms of the development of a political force capable of striking unified blows in a common direction. This requires, in the first place, identifying the reasons why the October [2019] Rebellion failed to impose by its own means the terms of the solution to the crisis, and why it had to be transmuted into a constituent process agreed and designed by and from the Congress.

Before blaming the “traitors” in office who perverted the power of the social revolt, this closing of the cycle forces us to think about our own shortcomings: a dispersion of social demands without reference to the common thread of the structural causes of the crisis of Chilean/global neoliberal capitalism, an archipelago of organizations without a common activity other than street mobilization, a disconnection between the militant nuclei and the mobilized mass, and the persistence of artisanal modes of organization that were not able to take advantage of the massive and popular eruption of revolt in new alternative political reference points with national profile.

If the main threat in Chile for the popular camp today is the rise of the extreme right, then the order of the day is to identify all the ways by which it is possible to stop and combat this regressive process. We believe that this can happen mainly through a resurgence of the demands that can get the working class of Chile out of the growing precariousness it is experiencing, and a political force that connects these solutions with a story of deep transformation that goes to the root, that breaks with the prevailing political and economic regime that puts the brakes on a transformative way out of the crisis.

If Kast and other Chilean neo-fascist expressions represent a way out of the crisis with conservative, authoritarian, and nationalist characteristics that reinforce the regime, then the path for the Left and the social movements will have to be a path of social struggles and class conflict in an anti-capitalist, feminist and ecosocialist key, aimed at exposing the causes of the crisis, while solving its most immediate symptoms with short-term material solutions. Without this combination, the extreme right will continue to have a free hand to convince the popular sectors that the current progressivism is not on their side, and that the only solution is to rely on their agenda of cutthroat competition.

Featured image credit: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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Franck Gaudichaud, Pablo Abufom, and Héctor A. Rivera View All

Franck Gaudichaud is a professor of political science and Latin American studies at the University of Toulouse 2 - Jean Jaurès. He is a member of the editorial board of ContreTemps magazine (Paris), and a contributor to Jacobin América Latina.

Pablo Abufom is a translator and holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Chile. He is an editor of Posiciones, Revista de Debate Estratégico, a founding member of the Centro Social y Librería Proyección and part of the editorial collective of Jacobin América Latina.

Héctor A. Rivera is a queer, Mexican-American, socialist educator. He lives in Los Ángeles, Califaztlán. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.