The Chilean Constituent Assembly: The Identity Experiment

The 155 delegates to Chile's constitutional convention share an obvious goal—drafting a constitution—but it is far from clear whether they share a common view on much else. What will their unprecedented focus on personal and collective identities mean for Chile's new constitution and the future of Chile's existing institutional order?


Source: Foundation for Law, Justice and Society, University of Oxford

For decades, Chile has served as a laboratory for international trends. In the early 1960s, it was the poster child for then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, a multibillion-dollar aid program for Latin America. Later in the decade, the country tried to prove to the world that a socialist revolution could take place while still respecting democratic norms. With a 1973 military coup spelling the abrupt end of Salvador Allende’s vía chilena al socialismo, Chile became a neoliberal experiment, collapsing spectacularly in the wake of the debt crisis of the early 1980s. Shortly thereafter, Chile tried to show the world what a peaceful, pacted, democratic transition might look like in practice. This transition succeeded, creating a model that dramatically reduced poverty, broadened social spending, expanded education, and even—contrary to the popular imagination—slightly reduced inequality.

Despite this experience, a good portion of Chilean society either felt left out, or, while recognizing the progress made since the return of democracy, nevertheless claimed that it was time to take the next step, one which would recalibrate the balance between the market and the state. The massive and sometimes violent protests of late 2019 were more about regulation than revolution. Yet revolution is what they ultimately produced—not an overturning of the government per se, but setting in motion a process that will, eventually, overturn the existing institutional order. On July 4, a Constitutional Convention met in Santiago to begin drafting a new constitution. Once again, Chile is embarking upon an experiment unlike any the world has seen.

Several countries have held similar constitutional conventions at different points in their history. Through such experiences, we learn much about how societies value representation. In 18th century America, regional representation was paramount, while in many 20th century experiences, party, class, and corporate representation received priority. However, 21st century politics are all about identity. Although the Chilean delegates were elected by regional districts, 17 seats were reserved for the country’s ten officially recognized Indigenous groups, while the electoral formula was designed to ensure gender parity. As a result, the new Chilean constitution will be the world’s first designed with these characteristics in mind. It has been said that this convention looks more like Chile than any previous political grouping.

If one of the criticisms of politics is that it is all too often the product of a few men meeting behind closed doors, the representativeness of Chile’s constitutional convention should be good news for the legitimacy of the document it will eventually produce.

Assuming, that is, that the convention is able to do so. One of the problems facing the Constitutional Convention is that the diversity of its 155 members comes from 155 quite distinct agendas. The fact that the largest single political “grouping” is made up of independent, non-aligned delegates shows the fragmentation and factionalism that characterizes the convention. It is reasonable to ask oneself what the common objective is, and what basic principles, values, or institutions are shared by all participants.

When the representatives of the 13 British colonies in America met in the First Continental Congress in 1774, there was much uncertainty and mutual suspicion. For a representative from New England like John Adams, a representative from Virginia like George Washington was essentially a foreigner. But they had gathered with a common purpose: to figure out how to deal with the British crackdown after the Boston Tea Party. They did not even, at that point, gather to consider independence—a step that came later.

The Chilean delegates share an obvious goal—to draft a constitution—but it is far from clear whether they share a common view on much else. This may be the result of how they were selected and of the importance that they, and voters, have placed on identity.

On one level, this constitutes important progress. For a country like Chile, where for centuries Indigenous groups have been oppressed and marginalized, the figure of Elisa Loncón, the Mapuche academic recently elected president of the constitutional convention, serves as an important statement of visibility and representation.

On another level, however, identity can be problematic. As political scientist Francis Fukuyama has pointed out, the challenge increasingly faced by liberal democracy is the maintenance of a rational exchange of ideas when a citizenry prioritizes lived experience over ideas—that is, when our political positions emerge not from what we think, but simply out of who we are. Clearly, one cannot question a position that emerges from identity. Fukuyama worries that this negatively affects “the kind of rational discourse needed to sustain a democracy,” or, we might add, the basic building block of democracy: a constitution. 

Herein lies the new Chilean experiment. The resulting constitution will be the world’s first to emerge from a debate between conflicting identities. Fukuyama might not be optimistic about its chances. On the other hand, if designed and implemented well, such a constitution might just provide a global roadmap for resolving these new identity-centered conflicts, which are unlikely to disappear very soon.

Robert Funk is an academic, columnist and consultant based at the Instituto de Asuntos Públicos at the Universidad de Chile, where he teaches political science.

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