Chile: Conservatives will now control Constitution rewrite

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chile seemed on the cusp of a progressive revolution last year when a committee dominated by leftists drafted a bold new constitution to replace the country’s dictatorship-era charter. But voters have put the brakes on the effort, first rejecting the proposed constitution and now giving conservatives the leading role in writing its replacement.

The far-right in Chile was the big winner of Sunday’s vote to select the members of the commission that will be tasked with writing a new constitution to replace the one imposed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The Republican Party, which has long said it opposes a new charter, obtained 23 of the 50 seats in the commission, meaning its representatives will not only have the most seats but will also enjoy veto power over any proposals they dislike.

“It’s ironic that the sector that said it was the least enthusiastic about the process now controls it,” said Robert Funk, a political scientist at Chile University.

A coalition of left-leaning parties allied with President Gabriel Boric, Unity for Chile, won 16 seats while a center-right alliance, Safe Chile, got 11.

The dominance of right-leaning parties in the commission “indicates that the proposal will likely make few changes (to the current constitution) and could be even more conservative,” Funk said.

The results marked a big blow for Boric and Chile’s left in general which won’t be able to force any issues into the drafting of the new constitution and won’t have any power to reject anything they dislike.

“They can’t do anything, it must be extremely frustrating,” said Kenneth Bunker, a political analyst. “The only thing they have left is to try to push a moral debate to try to find a middle ground.”

Recognizing this new reality, Boric called on those who won the election Sunday to “not make the same mistake we did … in believing that pendulums are permanent.”

The proposed constitution put to Chilean voters last year had been described as the most progressive in the world, characterizing Chile as a plurinational state, establishing autonomous Indigenous territories, and prioritizing the environment and gender parity.

But critics said it was too long, lacked clarity and went too far in some of its measures. About 62% of Chileans voted to reject it, setting up Sunday’s vote to choose a committee to draft its replacement.

The victory of the right is partly explained by the “excesses of the first constitutional process that put forward a proposal that was too ideological,” Funk said, adding that the concerns of Chileans have changed and now the economy, crime and immigration are the most important issues.

If the Republican Party does “the same thing as the others did and we end up with a constitution that is too ideological, they run the risk of people rejecting it in December,” Funk said.

A key difference is that, unlike last time, the commission’s members won’t start from scratch, but rather work from a preliminary document drafted by 24 experts who were approved by Congress. The body’s proposal will face a plebiscite in December.

The big winner of Sunday’s vote was José Antonio Kast, who leads the Republican Party and lost the presidential runoff to Boric in 2021.

After his party’s victory on Sunday, Kast now “becomes the de facto head of the opposition” and will be the “orchestra director who will manage the constitutional debate,” Bunker said. That automatically puts him in the “pole position for the next presidential race,” Bunker added.

Kast’s victory comes at a time when other countries in the region are also seeing the far-right make gains.

In Paraguay, for example, far-right populist candidate Paraguayo Cubas came in an unexpectedly strong third place in presidential elections last month and obtained 23% of the vote. In Argentina, polls show far-right lawmaker Javier Milei could be a strong contender in the October presidential elections.

The path to rewriting Chile’s constitution began after violent student-led protests in 2019 that were sparked by a hike in public transportation prices but quickly expanded into broader demands for greater equality and social protections.

Congress managed to get the protests under control by calling for a referendum on whether to draw up a new constitution, which almost 80% of voters agreed was needed. Much of that early enthusiasm has waned.