Populism has cast a particularly long shadow in Latin America. Speakers cheering the crowd proclaiming a new utopia spice up its recent history.
General Juan Domingo Perón spawned an eponymous movement in the 1940s so powerful that it has dominated Argentine politics ever since. More recently, Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela and Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s “Fourth Transformation” in Mexico seduced voters with magical promises that belied the authoritarianism of their respective leaders.
In this unpromising political landscape, Chile’s decision in a referendum on Sunday to decisively reject an incredibly utopian constitution stands out as a remarkable example of civic maturity. It’s a setback for leftist president Gabriel Boric, the former student protest leader who had bet a lot of political capital on the now rejected radical project.
Voters were, almost literally, pledged to the land (the draft would have granted constitutional rights to nature). Pretty carrots abounded among the 388 articles written by a specially elected assembly after a year of sometimes heated debate.
The draft constitution required the state not only to provide health, education, and housing, but also to ensure the production of healthy food and the promotion of Chilean national cuisine. Strangely, in a country where millions of people still do not have access to high-speed Internet, this would have guaranteed a right to “digital disconnection”.
Yet Chileans have seen through the utopian vision amid an altogether more prosaic reality of rising inflation, a slowing economy and a myriad of economic challenges. Nearly 86% went to the polls and nearly 62% of them voted against the new constitution.
Such electoral maturity is highly unusual anywhere, let alone in a middle-income country. According to a global study conducted by two American academics, Zachary Elkins and Alexander Hudson, voters approved 94% of the 179 new constitutions submitted to them since the French Revolution of 1789.
But Chileans haven’t given up on their desire to rid themselves of the original sin of the current constitution, crafted under Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. Left-wing Colombian President Gustavo Petro tweeted after the Sunday night’s result that “Pinochet came back to life”. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Certain thresholds have been crossed and there is no turning back,” said Andrés Velasco, a former Chilean politician who is now dean of the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics. “There will be a new constitution. Representation of women and ethnic minorities is now entrenched in politics, access to abortion will be expanded and same-sex marriage will remain legal. Regarding values and inclusiveness, Chile has moved forward and that will not change. »
What is likely to come next is another attempt to rewrite the constitution. This will correct past mistakes by ensuring that delegates to a new Constituent Assembly are more representative of a country largely divided between left and right. He will always ensure that long marginalized indigenous communities are represented, but will ensure that this is proportionate. This will not give single cause activists an unfair advantage.
From this process will likely emerge a new charter that grants stronger individual rights to Chileans and a greater role for the state in guaranteeing essential public services. In short, something more like a European welfare state and less like a Friedmanian free market. It will be an evolution rather than a revolution.
Encouragingly, this process promises to be peaceful and democratic. Hours after last night’s referendum result, Chileans from most political parties accepted the result as fair, made conciliatory statements and began building consensus for a new, more moderate charter. Even Boric accepted the need for a document “that unites us as a country”.
In their irresistible desire to reject populism and embrace consensus, expressed peacefully and democratically, Chileans have set an example to the world.