Everyday people designing Chile’s new national constitution


CHILEANS HAVE DARED TO BET ON THEMSELVES. If they win, they will give themselves the kind of democracy they have always wanted. But, no one is calling it a sure thing.

Winning the bet depends on the outcome of the deliberations of a constituent assembly working on proposals for a new constitution for the country. Chileans will get to vote to accept, or reject, the proposals on September 4.

The Chilean people have made an all-in commitment to democracy in theory and in practice. Everyday people started the whole process, they are the ones directly involved in working it through and they are the ones who will decide if it is what they want or not.

Constant turmoil

Chile, a country of over 19 million, has known political turmoil on and off since the 1973 coup against the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and the imposition of a military dictatorship with its own “dictator’s constitution.”

The latest explosion of popular unrest came in October 2019. Chile was shaken by an outburst of massive demonstrations. At the height of the uprising, an estimated 1.2 million demonstrators packed Plaza Italia in Chile’s capital, Santiago. One of their major demands was an end to the dictator’s illegitimate constitution.

The uprisings shook the government enough to move them to hold a plebiscite on the constitution issue in October 2020: 78% of those voting favoured the creation of a constituent assembly to fashion a replacement of the old constitution with a fresh one. That resulted in the election of delegates to a constitutional convention of everyday people in May 2021.

Scrupulously democratic

Chile smartly used a proportional representation (PR) electoral system to select its constitutional delegates.

Of Chile’s 155 constitutional delegates, 138 were elected in 28 districts of between three and eight seats by a proportional method known as “open list”—when citizens vote for an individual candidate, their vote is also assigned to that candidate’s party list.

Chile set aside 17 seats for 10 different indigenous groups, weighted by the size of each group, giving them a share of the convention delegates (11%) that is intended to roughly equal their share of the national population.

To ensure equal representation of men and women in the assembly, all parties and alliances had to present a list of candidates alternating by gender. In addition, each candidate list had to ensure that at least 5% of the names were candidates with disabilities.

These efforts produced clear results: the convention is the most representative body in Chile’s history. Not only are half of the delegates women, but many of its members are first-time office holders, including schoolteachers, shop owners, veterinarians, dentists, social workers, community activists, a car mechanic, a deep-water diver, a rural surgeon, a professional chess player and a homemaker.

Elites eliminated

Remarkably, two thirds of the 155 convention delegates have no political party affiliation. Voters rejected not only the political and business elites, but also every other elite—academic, NGO, union, and media.”

This intensely democratic process has resulted in its own basket of challenges.

The constitutional process includes an innovative grassroots component that allows everyday people to propose constitutional amendments to the delegates. More than 980,000 people, from both the right and the left, have supported 2,496 initiatives introduced by citizens. So far 77 proposals have reached the qualifying signature threshold and been submitted to the delegates. These incorporate ideas from across the political spectrum, including some that contradict each other.

Opinion polls see-saw

It takes a majority vote for a proposal to pass out of a committee to the plenary. But it will take a super majority — a two-thirds vote — for any proposal to be included in the final constitutional package.

All sessions of the plenary and committees have been broadcast over YouTube, and a lot of information is broadcast and amplified through social media (especially Twitter, Instagram and Facebook).

These non-expert, nonaligned delegates are charged with the enormous task of melding together a coherent package of proposals that, in aggregate, must form a viable constitution and also win support from a majority of their fellow citizens.This is proving to be no simple task, with opinion polls see-sawing up and down as new details emerge from the convention.

By mid-April, 177 articles had been approved.

The convention must release its final package in July. Then the real work will begin to convince Chileans that their future is better secured with the proposed Constitution constructed by people like themselves. If voters reject the new constitution, the current constitution will remain in force.

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