Thursday September 08, 2022

Chileans roundly reject a progressive statute

Chileans roundly reject a progressive statute

Constitutional assembly members begin formally debating the motions for a new Constitution, in Santiago, Chile. File/Reuters

Chileans in a bold democratic move rejected in a referendum a new constitution that was drafted by a convention with equal number of women and men delegates. It is a constitution that proposed to make Chile a “plurinational state”, declared Indigenous autonomous territories, gave priority to environment and gender parity. It appears that the people found the constitution to be too progressive.

Among the political groups, both the centre-left and right-wing factions, opposed the new constitution, and of all the eligible voters, 61.9 per cent rejected it, while 38.1 per cent supported it. What is interesting about the rejection is that it is the people of Chile who demanded the new constitution to replace the charter that was introduced by dictator Augusto Pinochet 40 years ago. They wanted the Pinochet document to be dumped. But when the constitution was presented to them, they did not like it. It is a serious setback to President Gabriel Boric, who got elected at the young age of 36 in March, and who has fully backed the new constitution. On Tuesday he made major changes in his cabinet as a response to the defeat. He said, “We have to listen to the voice of the people. Not just today, but the last intense years we’ve lived through. That anger is latent, and we can’t ignore it.” He said the changes in the cabinet were painful but necessary. He also said, “This is, maybe I don’t think I have to hide it, one of the most politically difficult moments that I’ve had to face.”

The rejection of the new constitution does not however mean that the people of Chile and the politicians want to go back to the old charter of the Pinochet era. They still want a new constitution but a more nuanced text than the one they rejected. And most politicians, including President Boric, are only too ready to get into the exercise of re-drafting another constitution that will satisfy the people.

This development could be seen as a political disaster, but it seems that Chile is turning it into an exercise of democratic will, where you correct the mistakes and prepare a better constitutional document. Roberto Briones, 41, one of the voters pointed to what he thought was wrong with the constitution: “The constitution that was written now leans too far to one side and does not have the vision of all Chileans. We all want a new constitution, but it needs to have a better structure.” Vlado Mirosevic, the leader of the group which had supported the constitution said after the referendum result, “We recognize this result and we listen with humility to what the Chilean people have expressed.”

Perhaps the Chilean experiment of rejecting a constitution that drafted at their demand and asking for a better one is a rare example of democratic politics, where elected representatives cannot impose on people what they think is the best constitution. It might be argued that the majority of the people rejected a progressive constitution because they are too conservative. And this could be right too. But if a large number of people are conservative, then the democratic convention is that they must have a conservative constitution if that is what they want. A small group of progressives cannot impose a progressive constitution on a majority that does not believe in progressive ideas. The new ideas embedded in the new constitution, which now stands rejected, contains a liberal ideas like a plurinational state, establishing autonomous territories for indigenous people, focus on the environment and on gender parity. The ideas are laudable, but the people seem to say that we do not want them in this form and at this moment. And the Chilean politicians are listening to the people’s voice.

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