For the first time in its 211-year independent history, Chile has elected an assembly to draft a new constitution — the result of a political crisis that began with social unrest in October 2019. The mid-May election for delegates to the constitutional assembly had some surprising results. Unlike in every election since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship ended in 1990, Chilean political parties suffered a big blow: 40 percent of the votes went to independent candidates.
How did that happen? The Chilean ruling elite is mostly made up of a small group of wealthy, privately educated White men. But the unrest forced elites to agree to a different system for electing a game-changing constitutional assembly that is gender-equal, includes Indigenous representatives and is dominated by independents who competed in lists issued by social movements and local activist networks. In doing so, citizens have defeated the traditional center-right and social democratic parties, long dominated by elites, which have shared power for 30 years.
Chile’s new constitutional assembly, charged with rewriting its political system, is markedly left-wing.
New rules to include gender parity and Indigenous groups by design
As hundreds of thousands of people protested on the streets in October and November 2019, Chile’s party elites agreed to an innovative process for writing a new constitution. In a national referendum in October 2020, Chilean voters overwhelmingly approved a system in which voting to have a constitutional convention would draft a new constitution. On May 15 and 16, citizens elected delegates to that assembly.
In keeping with the promises made in the fall of 2019, the process included three innovations to boost the assembly’s legitimacy and representation. First, 17 of 155 seats were reserved for Indigenous people, elected by Indigenous citizens, allocated based on various Indigenous groups’ populations. That matters because Indigenous people have long been marginalized from national politics and decision-making. These seats were expected to bring a bloc, however small, of nonelite representatives.
Second, the new system allowed candidates or organizations that were not political parties to form electoral lists designed to attract votes for an entire slate. In Chile, citizens have strong negative party identities. In other words, it is more likely for people to identify which parties they dislike than the parties they like.
This rule was included with the goal of legitimizing the assembly in the eyes of those who saw the parties as corrupt vehicles for the elites. Allowing ordinary people, social movements and community organizations to compete in lists was intended to bring fresh air to the representative body.
Third, the system mandated gender parity in both candidacies and results. Latin American countries started using legislative gender quotas in 1991, but Chile didn’t introduce them until 2017. That innovation only increased women’s representation in Congress from 16 to 23 percent, well below the region’s average of 30 percent.
Disappointed feminist activists and academics were determined not to let that happen again and lobbied to change the rules for the constitutional assembly. They designed a new electoral system that required gender parity within electoral lists and in the final composition of the assembly. All lists had to be headed by women and include an equal number of female and male candidates. Then, after the seats were allocated for each list, the system corrected for any gender imbalances at the district level, adding or taking out candidates to achieve a share of each gender as close as 50 percent. As a result, the assembly has 77 female delegates and 78 male delegates.
These institutional changes forced parties and other political organizations to recruit candidates from outside the usual male-centered, wealthy networks.
The end of a society ruled by old-boy school pals.
Many Chileans have been angry about the country’s increasing elitism. As economist Seth Zimmerman has shown, attending a select group of private high schools results in almost exclusive access to top corporate jobs. The makeup of the political class is not much different. But given the assembly election system, only 27 percent of the constitutional convention’s delegates went to a private school, and only a handful come from those schools Zimmerman identified as gatekeepers to wealth and power in Chile.
Juan Sutil, chair of the Confederación de la Producción y el Comercio, the most powerful business organization in Chile, declared shortly after the election that the organization didn’t know these independent assembly members, showing that elites are quite disconnected from community life. Earlier in the year, a study by Chile’s Center for the Study of Conflict and Social Cohesion showed that Chile’s business elites were more conservative, while political elites are more polarized than the broader population.
Chile has all the ingredients for the rise of a populist leader, yet none has risen.
Anti-elite sentiment may be common in Latin American politics, but it is new in Chile. For years, the country has had an institutionalized party system and a close-knit elite. Social hierarchies and authoritarian attitudes prevailed in society. After the 2019 social unrest, the prominent Chilean think tank Centro de Estudios Públicos conducted a study in which 50 percent of respondents agreed that Chile needed a strong leader “with the determination to lead us on the right path.”
No such populist leader has emerged to capitalize on the social malaise. During the peak of protests in 2019 amid violence and riots, observers showed concern that the ground was fertile for the emergence of a populist outsider, following the tradition of Latin American caudillos. But social movements and community organizations seem to be stepping up to take advantage of Chile’s party de-alignment.
This suggests that the writing of Chile’s new constitution will follow a different path from that of other Latin American constitutional assemblies, in which populist — often authoritarian — rulers controlled most of the seats. In Venezuela and Bolivia, these assemblies ended up enacting new constitutions that included a long list of social, individual and groups rights — but that concentrated power in the executive. So far, the Chilean process hints at a different outcome, one that delivers both rights and power-sharing institutions. The first step came when citizens demanded, almost by force, that elites hand off power to the people.