Chile’s Constitutional Experiment: A Global Lesson in Direct Democracy?

Chile’s experiment and constitutional rewrite is a global lesson in direct democracy for both good and bad.


Photo: A street vendor in Santiago, Chile, sells a copy of the proposed constitution to a passerby. Source: Reuters / Ivan Alvarado.

Chileans have often flirted with the idea that their country is one of experimentation. In recent years, it has been touted as a natural laboratory capable of hosting innovative forms of renewable energy and scientific research. Major investments could soon result in a data powerhouse that improves global understanding of climate change by monitoring physical impacts in the world’s driest desert, among the fjords and glaciers of Patagonia, and even on the isolated continent of Antarctica. However, such experiments in Chile go far beyond hard science.

The country’s contemporary political transformation will also represent an important case study for social scientists in years to come, but what the key takeaways will mean for Chile’s future has yet to be determined. While perhaps too early to judge, the experimental process that Chile has embarked on by reforming its magna carta is nevertheless an important albeit imperfect exercise. Lest we forget, the major social protests that rocked the political establishment in 2019 led to a framework that has resulted in greater civic participation and engagement.

Amidst a regional and global backdrop of democratic backsliding and autocratic prevalence, Chileans continue to choose democracy. Citizens voted overwhelmingly for the creation of a constitutional assembly in October 2020 and then later with the historic election of the country’s youngest leader, Gabriel Boric, whose political background began by organizing in the streets of La Alameda as a student leader.

Of the current 155 members of the constitutional convention, which recently delivered their draft to the president on July 4, most come from outside traditional political parties. 77 women form part of the convention, making it a historic first for gender parity, 17 seats are held by Indigenous people, and six members openly identify as part of the LGTBQ community. The average age of the entire convention is a youthful 45. Such facts do not necessarily portend a “woke” framework—as some have defined it—but reflect a more participatory process that encourages diversity, and therefore legitimacy, as the drafting of such an important framing document will not only guide how Chile conducts itself internally, but how it navigates global challenges as well as opportunities in the twenty-first century.

Regardless of intentions, the recent draft has received immense criticism, underscoring the high-stakes nature of this process. Former President Ricardo Lagos, one of Chile’s pioneers and main advocates for the return to democracy, has publicly opposed the draft constitution as currently written. Both the stature and shadow of the former president on prior work to amend the constitution are indeed consequential for those supporting its approval during a national vote on September 4. Such influence, by one of the country’s most important advocates for Chile’s return to democracy during the late 1980s, could likely weigh on those deciding whether to support its passage.

So what is in this new purple book—apparently flying off kiosks in downtown Santiago and throughout the country? The draft constitution holds some 388 articles, making it one of the most extensive in Latin America, if not the planet. Several areas are worth highlighting within the current draft for their importance and significance. For example, Article Six stands out for its definition of gender parity within government, including the promotion of gender equality across all sectors of the state. The document recognizes nature and the environment, but concretely we can view Articles 57 and 59, which define access to water as a human right and energy access for all Chileans that is “based on renewable energy and of low environmental impact.”

More controversial elements include eliminating the senate, decentralizing the state, and giving more decision-making power to regions—including recognizing indigenous autonomy under a plurinational framework. Critics point to the draft constitution as more of a wish list for progressive causes, rather than a governing document, with its path to acceptance becoming increasingly uncertain.

Despite all this, Chile’s experiment and constitutional rewrite is a global lesson in direct democracy for both good and bad. On the one hand, it shows the immense power of grassroots organizing, non-traditional political leaders, and the channeling of social discontent and public anger into constructive debates that minimize political repression and violence. On the other hand, citizen expectations, the suffering of those most impoverished and without a social safety net, alongside the squeeze felt by young people and middle-class families—threaten to risk the lofty aspirations and democratic values of reform, for the short-term necessities of the moment.

The September 4 plebiscite comes at a critical juncture for Chile and the region with what some have considered a resurgent ‘pink tide’ in Latin America, given Colombia’s recent election of Gustavo Petro, among other leftist leaders in the region. All eyes will soon shift to Brazil, where in a recent Wilson Center seminar, the head of the country’s Superior Electoral Court, Justice Edson Fachin, stated that Brazil could face even worse unrest during its upcoming election this October, compared to the insurrection of January 6, 2021, in the United States. Brazil’s presidential election may prove an important test of the country’s institutions and its resolve to continue a tradition of democratic order since 1988, when it too began the process of establishing a new constitution after decades of dictatorship.

Meanwhile, unpopular decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court on women’s reproductive rights and regulating emissions to tackle climate change, have left views on American democracy to be seen as increasingly ineffective—a simple pendulum between ideologies without concrete or effective policies that tackle issues of concern for the public good. But this is the messy, often uneasy reality of participatory and representative democracy that Chileans themselves are learning the hard way. Despite efforts to initiate change and reform, recent polling puts rejection of the draft constitution at 46 percent, according to Cadem. Approval of the draft and the country’s president sits at only 37 percent.

There is an argument to be made that nothing is ever so easy; that the book is being written as we all read along. Yet a concluding chapter for Chile and for the world, that the decline of a global democratic order is imminent, is perhaps what appears most worrisome and troubling of all. The Chilean experience, and the ongoing experiment to perfect its model of democracy and political unity, its economic system, and the desire to enshrine social rights in a modern constitution should excite those worried most about a rising autocratic and anti-democratic club of global powers. In the end, the United States and its diplomats must use their policy toolkit to be much more effective in engaging the region and the world on the merits of democracy, the rule of law, and how markets can indeed address poverty, inequality, and sustainable development.

Anders Beal is an associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are those of the author.

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