Analyzing The Defeat Of The Plebiscite In Chile
Just the day before the vote, we analyzed the situation and concluded the new Constitution could pass. We based our analysis on two studies elaborated by two recognized teams, which contradicted all the opinion polls spread by Chile’s mainstream media.
A week ago, we wrote that both the traditional media and the pollsters played on the same team as those who opposed the new Constitution. Therefore, it was logical that the “I reject” option was favored. On this point, we were not wrong.
The media campaign against the draft Constitution and the Constituent Assembly was an undeniable fact. However, in our analysis, we did not take into account other elements beyond the communicational field, namely, all those related to the current socioeconomic and political situation in Chile. These missing elements were the ones that determined such a disproportioned result on September 4.
Analyzing the previous votes, all favorable to the progressive forces, it was impossible to think that such a diverse and inclusive constitution would be rejected. For the first time in Chilean history, the Draft Constitution was written by an Assembly elected by the people. That already made it much more democratic than the current one, which was written by only eight people and under the watchful eye of the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet.
In addition, 103 out of the 155 constituents were representatives of social and progressive organizations. There was a broad representation of indigenous peoples, and gender parity was respected in the electoral process. This composition determined that the Draft Constitution had a strong environmental, feminist, and social character while respecting human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples, who represent over 20% of the country’s population.
Therefore, it was not unreasonable to think that an important sector of the population would see a good part of their aspirations achieved in the proposed text. Not only the right to health, education, and social security but also others like the sovereignty over water (Chile is the only country in the world where water sources are private) and the strengthening of the state’s capacity to deal with society’s problems.
Despite all these benefits, the text was rejected. Not only the oligarchic sectors voted against it but also a large part of those who would benefit from the new text. For example, 60% of women voted against a constitution that gave them many more rights than the current one. On top of that, 70% of the indigenous population voted against a Constitution that established a plurinational state and guaranteed indigenous rights and autonomy, something unprecedented until today. However, the most surprising fact is that 75% of the poorest sector (the last two quintiles of the population according to the distribution of wealth) voted against a project intended to improve their access to basic and social services.
How to understand these seemingly incongruent results? A recent interview with Professor Pedro Santander of the Catholic University of Valparaiso and another with the Mayor of Recoleta Daniel Jaude, provides a much better understanding of a result that seemed inexplicable to those of us who followed the process from the outside.
Both interviewees agree on one element, the vote was not against the new Constitution in essence, but against the management of a center-left government that is timid and timorous when it comes to undertaking the necessary reforms to relieve the plight of the majorities. Boric’s government has not addressed issues like the militarization of southern Chile (which is still in force) or the inflation that causes Chileans to be unable to make ends meet. But, above all, he did not put his weight behind the Constituent Assembly against the hate and discrediting attacks of the right-wing.
The reading of a progressive cycle in Chile from the 2019 protests was flawed. Understanding the 2019 protests and the subsequent electoral triumphs only as a result of confrontations between the right and the left was a mistake since Chileans did not protest or vote only guided by their ideological beliefs, but, above all, against an elite that imposed undeserving living conditions on them. This is a decisive element to understand how such a progressive text was dismissed and how far the leftist movements in Chile can really go.
That is to say, the triumphs obtained since 2019 are not only a sign of the growth of progressive forces in Chile but successive votes of punishment against the Chilean elite, against governments such as that of Sebastian Piñera, who did nothing to improve the living conditions of the majority.
Professor Santander recognizes that Boric has not worked as he should for the welfare of the most disadvantaged sectors. “Boric stepped on the brake and not on the accelerator when he became president,” Santander affirmed. This element limited the support for the Draft Constitution because, in a country governed by a Constitution like Pinochet’s, the only revolutionary force is the people on the streets, and Boric turned his back on them.
Any progressive project in Chile faces not only the oligarchy and its political representatives but also the institutions themselves and the economic and social structure, which were designed to reproduce the neoliberal model established by the 1980 Constitution. Therefore, the government’s efforts should have been commensurate with the existing obstacles, and it was not the case. So much so that even in the municipality of Recoleta, a working-class neighborhood governed by the communist Daniel Jaude, the “I approve” option was lost.
On the other hand, the vote in this process was mandatory. This element did not favor the “I approve” option. According to a member of the Movement for Water and Territories Francisca Fernandez Droguett, faced with such disappointing management, people went out to vote in indignation.
On September 4, over 85.8% of Chileans voted (if one takes into account that the electoral roll sometimes includes deceased people or those out of the country, the real figure could be close to 90%). It means that over 13 million people went to the polls, while in the last presidential elections, only 55% voted. In other words, over 30% of those who voted are people with no political or ideological affiliation, whose vote is guided by how easily their needs are satisfied, something that the current government has not met.
When the global results of the referendum are analyzed, the last thesis is completely confirmed. There is a coincidence between those who voted “I approve” and the votes Boric got in the runoff (little more than 4.5 million). That is to say, Boric has not added voters in almost six months of government.
Another factor that influenced the result was religion. Around 20% of the population defines itself as evangelical, mainly Pentecostal. Coincidentally, during the last presidential campaign, the right-wing candidate was the only politician invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at an evangelical congregation. Although this is not a conclusive fact or one that expresses loyalty by itself, it allows inferring preferences and links of an important sector of society, especially if they were forced to vote.
In the communicational field, there was also a better performance from the right wing. In our analysis before the plebiscite, we detailed that the right-wing sector had advantages over the rest due to its control over the media. Chile is a country where, thanks to the current Constitution, there is no public media, which makes it very difficult for a government to spread its positions when they differ from the interests of the elites. And because of the media distortions and lies many were confused and had questions and that being the case it is much easier to just vote no.
The defenders of the Pinochet Constitution made a very long campaign, which started with the election of the Constituent Assembly. While the government only engaged in a campaign once the text was drafted. That is to say, for over a year the asymmetry was huge because the right-wing media is immensely larger and more powerful than progressive ones without government support.
On the other hand, the right wing appealed to the deepest fears of Chilean society. It exploited fake news to the maximum to make people believe that the New Constitution privileged the indigenous over the rest or something as unthinkable as that people would lose their properties. They took advantage of the deep vein of conservative history of Chile that has been enshrined into thought by the many years of the Pinochet Constitution.
Meanwhile, some businessmen assured their workers that if the new text were passed, there would be fewer jobs or that they would be fired due to the closure of the company. Pinochet’s followers used every tool to avoid the triumph of the “I approve”.
In front of them were the progressive movements with much fewer resources and who bet on the help of a government that not only turned its back on the people but did little to help them. Perhaps because deep down, the proposed text was too progressive for it. I have no proof of this, but I have no doubts either.
Given this scenario and observing the causes that defined the result of the plebiscite in Chile, it is not possible to say that Chileans voted against the Draft Constitution. The victory of the ” I reject” was based on those who are not happy with the management of the current administration and those who were influenced by the negative campaign carried out by the right wing. People are not ignorant. Contrary to what many think and easily say, people do not vote against themselves, or their rights. Although, at the moment of defining themselves, “I can’t make ends meet” thought weighs more than their ideology or political beliefs.
In the same way, we should not be afraid and think of a Chile controlled by the right-wing, since all those who voted “I reject” are not right-wing followers. At this moment, the reorganization of progressive forces is necessary to start a new constitutional cycle.
Pinochet was revived for a moment, but his days are numbered since the Chilean people voted to change the Constitution. This draft did not pass, and perhaps the next one will not be better, but it won’t be the Constitution of a dictator. What will be needed for this to happen will need to be clear organized leadership that can combat the conservative forces. This vote is a blow to President Boric, whose position is a product of the battles in the streets that began in 2018; it remains to be seen if he is part of the solution or the problem.