Hope abounds in Chile. The result of elections held on May 15-16, 2021, for the 155-member new constituent assembly has arrived. It will be the first time in its 200 years of independence that Chile will have a Fundamental Law drawn up by a convention of elected citizens, since the three texts it has had so far (1833, 1925 and 1980) have been drafted by bodies not elected by popular vote.
Independent candidates - many of whom are activists of progressive causes, including environmentalists, feminists, public housing advocates and community organizers - have secured 48 seats, the left 28, the centre-left 25, and the right-wing coalition 37. The Chilean Right was sure of winning at least one third of the seats (52 out of 155), ensuring it a right of veto over all articles in the future constitution: in this, it failed.
The 20% of the vote received by billionaire right-wing President Sebastian Pinera’s “Chile Vamos” coalition is its worst electoral performance since democracy was restored in 1990. He was forced to offer a sober diagnosis of the elections, admitting, “We are not adequately tuning in with the demands and desires of the citizens.”
The remaining 17 seats have went the indigenous people of Chile, whose rights were erased by the US-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet’s constitution, one of the few constitutions in Latin America that doesn’t even acknowledge indigenous people. The indigenous people constitute 13% of the population. This is the first time ever the indigenous have been recognized and given guaranteed representation.
In addition to the election of the 155 constituents, these elections were also for municipal representatives and regional governorships. The right also suffered a serious defeat here, losing the most important and largest municipalities in Chile: Santiago, Maipú, Estación Central, Ñuñoa, Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, which were won by the left-wing Broad Front and the Communist Party. In fact, Chile Vamos coalition won the governorship of only one region, Los Rios.
The most impressive Communist victory in the municipal elections was the election of 30-year-old economist Irací Hassler to Mayor of downtown Santiago. She beat the incumbent Felipe Alessandri despite the latter having the backing of Pinera’s right wing forces. Hassler is the first Communist Party candidate to become a mayor in the capital city since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship 31 years ago.
Hassler responded to her victory by saying, “We hope that what is happening today in Santiago is the prelude to what is also coming in our country, where never again will the Right govern against our neighbors… we are going to have a new Constitution and a transformation in Santiago’s neighborhoods to conquer our dignity and a good living.”
The election results are also a success for women. Less than 25% of Chilean MPs are women. In the Lower House, 35 of the 155 deputies are women, and in the Senate, just over ten senators of the 43 are women. Recent political developments are set to radically change this. The new constitutional body is the first in the world to specify a roughly equal number of male and female delegates. A total of 699 women and 674 men stood in the elections. The women have got 77 seats and the men 78. The gender parity idea was opposed by rightwing parties, but it was overruled by the Congress.
The electoral outcomes in Chile are a continuation of an anti-neoliberal struggle that began almost two years back. In October 2019, strong public protests began, initially ignited in the face of a planned increase in the price of public transport tickets. Soon, however, the massive social inequality and persistent poverty in the country became the focus of the demonstrations. On October 25, 2019, 1.2 million people gathered in Santiago, in the largest protest in the nation’s history, demanding Pinera’s resignation.
More than 30 people were killed and many were injured during the brutal repression. Pinera was forced to concede a vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution. On October 25, 2020 Chileans voted 78% in favour of this process. The recent elections are another step in this long-drawn-out struggle to redefine the contours of Chile.
The 1980 Pinochet constitution has hitherto played in important role in entrenching neoliberalism in Chile. The constitution formally laid the foundations of an atomized society, in which personal responsibility is handed over to individuals through the market. In this schema, the state only exists for the capitalists, not the workers. It cannot create companies nor directly provide social services; it is only able to intervene in the case of market failures by, for instance, supporting low-income sectors with voucher programs, a policy of targeted social spending that displaces the universal provision of rights.
The deep imprints left by a regressive constitution significantly shaped Chile’s post-dictatorship trajectory, marking it with ugly inequalities. According to the World Bank, the richest 1% of Chileans control 33% of the country’s total wealth and 10% of its total income. An all-powerful business class exerts direct control over a number of crucial sectors, including the media, education, and health care. With an anti-neoliberal transformation of the political landscape, this decadent bourgeoisie is feeling threatened. Chile’s stock market dived and its currency fell in value as businesses took fright at the victory of the left and independents.
Constanza Schönhaut, elected representative for the constituent assembly from the left-wing party “Social Convergence”, has succinctly expressed the idea behind the constituent assembly which poses such a big danger to capitalist interests: “We are confident that this constituent process has to face the people; it has to include all the voices that have been excluded during the last 30 to 40 years. It has to be done together with the feminists, with the ecologists, with the different unions, with the councils, and different territorial organizations. And that is where we will be: because we need a constituent assembly that is open and a new Constitution that becomes a useful tool to achieve social justice.”
The prospect for a progressive future seems to increase steadily in Chile. Communist Party presidential candidate Daniel Jadue, who was re-elected mayor of Recoleta with 66% of the votes, said the party now represents “a possibility for Chile.” Indeed, polls show that he could be a serious contender, even the possible winner. The present conjuncture - characterized by a severe decline of the right-wing camp and the growing appeal of progressive praxis - is also indicative of a future victory for Jadue.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.