Chile shifts left

Chile went to the polls on Sunday to elect a constitutional convention, as mandated by a referendum last October in which a large majority voted to draft a new constitution. The results (available in Spanish here) show a pronounced swing to the left, although what effect this will have – either on the constitution or on Chilean politics in the future – is far from certain.

A bit of background here is in order. From the departure of dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990, Chile was governed for twenty years by a succession of presidents endorsed by a broad centre-to-left coalition. The right finally returned to power in 2010 when Sebastián Piñera won the presidential election. Presidents cannot serve consecutive terms, so when Piñera left office in 2014 he was succeeded by Socialist Michelle Bachelet, also a former president.

But in keeping with the movement at the time towards the right in South America, Piñera was able to make a comeback at the 2017 election, beating the centre-left’s candidate with 54.6% in the runoff. He was inaugurated for a second term in March 2018, and has not had a happy time of it. Massive and sometimes violent anti-government protests in 2019 transformed the political landscape, and Piñera’s approval rating fell to single digits.

Nonetheless, the president survived attempts to impeach him, and although still deeply unpopular he has managed to claw back some of his standing – partly through conceding one of the main demands of the protesters, a new constitution.

Chile’s existing constitution, which dates from 1980, is a product of the Pinochet era. It has generally been very successful in preserving a stable democracy, but evidently many Chileans see it as a symbolic relic of dictatorship as well as a barrier to achieving greater economic equality. It was no surprise when 78.3% voted in favor of replacing it in last year’s referendum, although agreeing on a replacement will not be so easy.

Sunday’s voting elected 155 members of the new convention: 138 on the general roll and 17 reserved for representatives of indigenous communities. Piñera’s centre-right coalition, “Let’s Go Chile”, topped the poll with 20.6% of the vote and 37 seats. But that’s a long way short of the 36.6% that he won in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, or the 38.7% that his party had in the congressional election at the same time.

The left, to the extent that such a thing exists as a single category, will have a clear majority. The far-left Broad Front, running as “Approve Dignity”, came second with 18.7% and 28 seats; similar to the 20.3% that it had when placed third in the last presidential election. Close behind and also on the left was a slate of anti-establishment independent candidates, “List of the People”, with 15.8% and 26 seats.

The main centre-left coalition, running as “List of the Approve”, could only manage fourth place, with 14.5% and 25 seats – a big comedown from its first-round 22.7% in 2017. Other independent lists and candidates won the remaining 22 non-indigenous seats, half of them grouped in a loose coalition called “non-neutral independents”. With most of the indigenous representatives likely to lean to the left, a united left-wing position would be well on the way to reaching the two-thirds majority necessary to put a new constitution to a referendum.

But the chance of such a united position emerging seems slim. The Chilean centre-left is moderate and very much part of the establishment; it is not going to sign up to some revolutionary document produced by the far left. Although the centre-right is well short of a third of the seats, in practical terms it will probably still have the power to veto a draft that is contrary to its interests. Which is arguably as it should be, despite the president’s unpopularity: constitutional change should be driven by consensus if at all possible, not by the victory of one side or the other.

Before the voters can decide on a new constitution, however, they will go to the polls again in presidential and congressional elections in six months time. If Sunday’s results are any guide, the centre-left will be in grave danger of running third, leaving a runoff to be fought out between the right and the far left. But a lot could happen between now and November.

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