Chile Shifts Rightward on the Eve of Another Constitutional Vote

With so many Chileans willing to limit rights to solve the country’s security problems, the main question for the future seems to be who will reap the benefits of the country’s malaise, Chile’s traditional right or a hard-right autocrat. 


Source: Elvis Gonzalez/Pool/Getty Images.

On December 17, Chileans will go to the polls to accept or reject a new constitution. The effort to reform Chile’s 1980 constitution, a relic of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), grew out of mass protests that erupted across the country in October 2019—the Estallido Social (Social Explosion), driven largely by issues of inequality. Chilean politicians across the political spectrum came together to do what Chileans have long been famous for, devising an institutional response to channel discontent.

Now, however, a process born out of political consensus has come to reflect Chile’s deepening polarization. In September 2022, a first constitutional assembly produced a draft that voters resoundingly rejected as too far to the left. The version to be put to a test in mid-December was produced by a second Constitutional Council dominated by the right and far-right. Polls suggest that this draft, too, will be rejected, unless large numbers of undecided voters vote ‘yes’ just to get the process over with.

Sinking Left, Rising Right 

Whatever happens on December 17, Chileans are in a sour mood. Twice as many Chileans disapprove of President Gabriel Boric as approve of him. Boric’s supporters hoped that the election of a young, leftist president would usher in a period of fundamental socio-economic change. However, their expectations have been dashed. Boric and his allies constitute a minority in the Congress, and a divided and fragmented legislature has blocked proposed health, pension, and tax reforms.

Four years after the largest mobilizations since Chile’s 1990 return to democracy, more than half of Chileans say that inequality is worse than it was before the Estallido, and more than two-thirds believe that poverty and the economy are worse than in 2019. The sense of stagnation is palpable; long-time observers interviewed in Santiago lament that a country long characterized by the ability to achieve consensus seems unable to get anything done.

This is bad news for the president and good news for the right, whose far-right candidate, José Antonio Kast, defeated Boric in the first round of Chile’s elections in November 2021—only to lose by nearly twelve points in a run-off one month later. Since the defeat of the first constitutional draft, however, the right and far-right have gathered steam, sweeping last May’s election for a council to produce a new draft. Kast’s far-right Partido Republicano won 22 seats while the traditional right gained 11, giving them a super-majority in the 50-seat body. Rather than learn from the earlier failed process, however, the right-wing rejected the advice of a group of experts who urged moderation in producing a second draft.

The result is a new text that undermines Chile’s already limited abortion rights, favors the wealthy (for example, by eliminating real estate taxes on primary dwellings, an important source of municipal revenue), and freezes into place the private sector’s role in providing social services, including pensions, an arrangement that threatens to cement Chile’s vast inequalities.    

Struggling on Three Issues

Results of the plebiscite aside, Boric and the Chilean left are struggling on three issues that typically favor conservative or populist posturing—crime and violence, immigration, and the economy, all of which have high salience in Chilean public opinion. Chile’s next presidential election does not take place until November 2025, and Boric cannot run for a second consecutive term. His weakness on these three issues, however, provides a wide opening that the right is already proving adept at exploiting.

Regarding crime, it is important to note that Chile has the lowest homicide rate in all of Latin America and the Caribbean—6.7 per 100,000, according to Chile’s Prosecutor General. By contrast, in 2022, homicide rates in Jamaica were 52.9 per 100,000, and in Venezuela, 40.4 per 100,000. Chile’s homicide rate, nevertheless, has increased by 60 percent over its 2016 level, when it was 4.2 per 100,000. Last month, Prosecutor General Ángel Valencia admitted that “indeed, the number of homicides, the violence associated with them, and the number of cases with firearms has increased.”

More importantly, non-lethal violent crime has steadily risen, especially in poor neighborhoods. In 2022, the non-governmental organization Paz Ciudadana found that 36.6 percent of Chilean households reported that a member had been the victim of robbery or attempted robbery. Paz Ciudadana reported that fear of crime had risen to 30.5 percent, the highest level in the group’s twenty-three years of gathering statistics. Leading Chilean pollster Cadem reported in December that sixty percent of Chileans say that crime and drug trafficking should be the government’s main priority in 2024.

Crime far outranks health, pensions, and education—the very issues behind the 2019 protests. Also striking is what Chileans would tolerate to fight crime: according to the Center for Political Studies (CEP), a Chilean think tank, 50 percent believe that the only way to control crime is “to suppress public and private liberties,” while only 14 percent said that rights should be guaranteed even if that made fighting crime more difficult. This brings to mind the situation in El Salvador, where citizens have welcomed President Nayib Bukele’s draconian crackdown on gangs despite rampant human rights abuses associated with it.

The linkage—both imagined and real—between crime and migration is another hot-button issue.   The number of migrants in Chile has more than quadrupled since 2012, led by Venezuelans, followed by Peruvians, Haitians, and Colombians. Chile’s Catholic University reported last year that 82 percent of Chileans feel that the number of migrants is “excessive” and 74 percent, according to CEP, have a negative view of those who have arrived in the last five years. CEP found, moreover, that 70 percent of Chileans believe that immigrants increase crime levels, even if evidence in that regard is not conclusive. Analysts of Chilean migration point out that percentage of foreigners convicted of crimes is proportionate to their share of the overall population. But convictions are not the same as arrests, and others have indicated that foreigners, especially Venezuelans, constitute roughly a quarter of criminal suspects.

There is little doubt, however, that foreigners bear much responsibility for organized crime’s recent expansion in Chile. According the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international network of investigative journalists, the Venezuelan gang known as the Tren de Aragua has “set off a wave of terror” in Chile and other South American countries, “bringing kidnapping, drug trafficking, and contract killing with it.” Prosecutor General Valencia has pointed to foreign involvement in a “significant increase” in crimes unusual for Chile that have a high impact in public opinion. For example, kidnappings for ransom in areas of northern Chile, where the Tren de Aragua is reported to run extensive human trafficking networks. Other forms of extreme violence—the appearance of dismembered bodies, for example—have shocked Chileans not used to such gruesome displays, as have “narco-funerals” in poor neighborhoods that go on for days. The Boric government has instituted a host of measures to respond to the deteriorating security situation, signing legislation to give the police more latitude in fighting crime, increasing police budgets, and creating a new Organized Crime and Homicides Team. His policies have been largely reactive, and less than a fourth of Chileans believe he has the capacity to fight crime and drug trafficking.

A third challenge is the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic was devastating throughout Latin America, and added shocks—the war in Ukraine, high interest rates in the United States, and natural disasters—have continued to hammer the developing world. That said, Chile’s post-pandemic recovery has been more fraught than most. The UN Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean reports that Chile’s is the only South American economy other than Argentina’s that is projected to shrink in 2023—by 0.3 percent. Unemployment stands at almost 9 percent, higher than in the ten years preceding the pandemic. And inflation, which has fallen in recent months, is still greater than in most South American countries (not including the hyper-inflationary Venezuela and Argentina). The Chilean economy has been especially hurt by lower exports of copper, largely due to slower growth in China, its principal trading partner.

Chile seeks to be a major player in the global green energy transition and possesses the world’s largest reserves of lithium, a vital input for electric vehicles. The country has typically attracted robust foreign investment due to its stable institutions and clear rules of the game. However, some aspects of the government’s National Lithium Strategy, including the creation of a state lithium company to partner with the private sector, left many domestic and foreign investors scratching their heads. At a moment when demand for lithium is skyrocketing, continued delays in working out some of the Strategy’s more contentious aspects could cost Chile a unique opportunity.

Disillusionment and Opportunity

With Chile’s 2025 presidential election still two years away, there should be ample time for the Boric administration to course correct. But the president’s critics accuse him of focusing too much on his left-wing electoral base in anticipation of a future run, rather than seeking agreements with political opponents to devise pragmatic policy solutions. Meanwhile, disillusionment, disgust with politicians, and pessimism about the future are rampant. Sentiments like that typically presage an anti-incumbent surge.

For now, the opposition politician with the highest approval rating is Evelyn Matthei, the mayor of Providencia, a Santiago district. Matthei was a government minister during the Sebastián Piñera administration and the losing presidential candidate in 2013, serving as the candidate of the Alianza Por Chile, a rightist coalition of the Renovación Nacional and Unión Demócrata Independiente parties.

Kast, who lost to Boric in 2021, is likely to seek a comeback, capitalizing on the Partido Republicano’s stunning upset in last May’s elections for the second Constitutional Council. The Partido Republicano stands for a kind of individualistic fundamentalism based on the traditional family, belief in God, and opposition to abortion, among other principles. He is likely to campaign on the same law-and-order issues as he did in 2021, with Chileans even more receptive to his messaging than before.

With so many Chileans willing to limit rights to solve the country’s security problems, the main question for the future seems to be who will reap the benefits of the country’s malaise, Chile’s traditional right or a hard-right autocrat. 


Dr. Cynthia J. Arnson is a Distinguished Fellow and former director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She spent two weeks in Chile in October 2023.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed.

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