The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Chile’s constitutional ‘No’ vote is a chance to course-correct

Chileans protest President Gabriel Boric on Sept. 5 after voters rejected a draft of a new constitution, outside La Moneda Presidential Palace in Santiago. (Javier Torres/AFP/Getty Images)

If it were up to celebrity economists like Thomas Piketty or Hollywood fellow travelers, Chile would be celebrating a revolutionary new constitution this week.

Chileans had a different idea and voted massively on Sunday to reject the new charter. The 24-point margin suggests the “No” vote was not the work of picayune partisanship — much less the ghost of former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, as Colombian President Gustavo Petro suggested.

Whether the 54,000-word document was impossibly ambitious, profligate, too “woke” or utopian, voters decided it was a bigger risk than keeping the old dictator’s document it was meant to replace. Even Chilean President Gabriel Boric, a onetime student radical who made constitutional reform his campaign mantra, got the memo. In a heartfelt concession speech, he beseeched Chileans to unite and start over.

The Post's View: Chile should send its proposed constitution back for a rewrite

That won’t be easy. Still, the failed rewrite could offer a face-saving course correction for Chile — and an object lesson for a continent fractured by political pieties. While the “No” vote risks reigniting public rancor, it also forces the country’s quarreling camps back to the negotiating table to turn the 178-page wish list into plausible reforms. That hands Chileans a rare opportunity to rescue the vanishing Latin American tradition of political consensus.

“The delegates to the constitutional assembly had the conceit that they represented the people. But the people said something different,” the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Nicolás Saldías told me. “This tells you that there are limits to the next constitution. That’s a positive for Chile.”

That was not the view in 2019. Then, Chileans initially angered by a modest transit fare increase, poured into the streets in what became a “social explosion” of protests and upheaval. Though the Andean nation had enchanted investors and marshaled enviable growth rates while slashing poverty, too many Chileans still fell through the capitalist cracks. They had tired of the lullabies about the free market, which had failed to spread wealth, adequately finance tuitions for higher education and pay pensions large enough for graying workers to retire. Little wonder that 78 percent of Chileans voted in 2020 to recast the 1980 constitution, written under Pinochet’s diktat.

What began as a laudable cry for change ended up a hope chest. Chile would not only become an officially “plurinational state” but also would maintain a separate indigenous justice system, the rules for which were left undefined. Chileans would have the right to wholesome and “culturally relevant food,” whatever that meant.

Private water rights would be abolished in favor of revocable state-issued permits, sowing doubts for Chile’s enterprising farmers. While the drafters stopped short of moving to nationalize mining, they called for a freeze on issuing new concessions, injecting a layer of legal uncertainty into the country’s meal ticket industry. Nationalized assets were to be compensated at “fair value,” a gauzy term to be hashed out in court instead of among private parties, potentially breaching investment treaties.

Nor would politics go unscathed. The Senate, a critical backstop in Chile’s system of checks and balances, would be scrapped in favor of a weaker regional chamber, disproportionately empowering the lower house — a likely shortcut to populist initiatives.

A study by former government economists and academics found that implementing this high-minded package of social bonbons would cost Chile an additional 9 to 14 percent of gross domestic product a year — as much as the yearly haul from mining.

Belatedly, a humbled Boric is hoping to reform the reform, calling on the country’s factions to negotiate a new charter. Whether that task will fall to a new constituent assembly or the sitting congress remains to be seen. So, too, will Boric’s bid to shepherd the reset. His approval ratings have tanked since he took office in March, and Chile faces an escalating public safety crisis and a wan economy. Allies on the hard left accuse him of selling out, while the “No” vote emboldened adversaries on the right. On Monday, he announced a cabinet shake-up.

Whatever the path, Chile’s way forward will be fraught, with the country likely facing renewed social turmoil and what Saldías called “a vicious circle of reforms that beget more reforms.”

Yet, at a time when anti-politics is the intoxicant of choice, thrashing out a new constitution could again make Chile a Latin American outlier. Consensus building, more than neoliberalism, has arguably been Chile’s most compelling achievement, allowing governments of the center left and right to avoid gridlock, eschew fiscal adventures and find common ground since democracy returned in 1990. Sadly, tenured elites soured the pact by turning politics into an insiders’ game, setting Chile up for deepening discontent.

“The lesson here is that while people want a better safety net, to hold incumbents to account, and punishment for bad actors, they don’t want radical changes,” said Juan Nagel, who teaches economics at Universidad de los Andes. “Rejecting the constitution was a vote for moderation.”

Latin America should be so lucky.