Why Chile’s Constitutional Reform Matters

Sophie Coombs | Latin America Fellow

In a historic plebiscite last October, Chileans voted in an overwhelming majority of 78 per cent to replace the country’s constitution. In a decision symptomatic of the populace’s dwindling faith in the country’s political class, voters stipulated that the committee tasked with writing the new constitution would be entirely citizen-elected, with none of its members being serving politicians.


Chile now faces the unique challenge of drafting a constitution that will guide its citizens through the country’s most turbulent period since its transition to democracy in 1990. The debate surrounding constitutional reform is hopeful. Many Chileans are seeking a more just constitution that will promote greater equality, address climate issues, and encompass a wide range of voices from outside the political establishment. However, whether the reform process can actually accomplish this remains to be seen. To understand what this reform process might mean for Chile’s future and what lessons Australia can draw from it all, it’s important to understand the socio-political context of the Chilean campaign for a new constitution.


Why a new constitution? Why now?


Mass protests in Chile have demonstrated that ordinary Chileans are tired of the rising cost of living, poor quality public health and education services, as well as increasing socio-economic inequality. Despite being the richest nation in Latin America and one often admired for its competitive economic model, Chile is now facing a backlash against years of neoliberal economic policy.


Drafted during Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, Chile’s current constitution is the work of a small group of Pinochet’s advisors–many of whom studied at the Chicago School of Economics under famed professor Milton Friedman. The influence of Friedman’s ideas can be seen in Article 19 of the document, which paved the way for the privatization of gas, water, and other utilities, as well as essential services like health, education, and pension funds.


Cracks have well and truly appeared in this once lauded experiment in neoliberalism. To access tertiary education and quality health care, increasing numbers of Chileans are taking out loans which prove difficult to repay on an average salary. This has engendered a cycle of debt among working- and middle-class Chileans. Poorly managed, privately-run pension funds are another contentious issue stemming from the Pinochet-era constitution. Chile’s private funds have some of the lowest average payouts in the OECD, with the typical pensioner receiving between 36-40 per cent of their pre-retirement earnings. For many, the promise of upward social mobility that the constitution once promoted has all but disappeared.


How will constitutional reform unfold in Chile?


Following the landmark October plebiscite, Chileans will have to return to the polls in April to decide on who they want to form the citizen-led constitutional assembly. Prospective committee members were allowed until the 11th of January to submit their candidacies. The list of candidates eligible for April’s election will be announced on the 21st of January by the Chilean Minister of the Interior.


Although committee members have yet to be elected, the country’s congress has already stipulated that 50 per cent of the assembly’s representatives will be female. This would make Chile the first country in the world to have a constitution drafted by equal numbers of men and women.


Similarly, Chile’s Constitutional assembly will make history in terms of Indigenous representation. 17 of the 155 committee seats have been reserved for members of Chile’s nine different Indigenous groups (who constitute around 12 per cent of the population). This initiative means that Chile’s constitutional assembly will have the highest number of designated Indigenous seats of any constitution-drafting committee worldwide.


Once elected, the representatives of the assembly will have nine months in which to draft the nation’s new constitution. This period can be extended by three months if needed, but only one three-month extension can be granted. It is expected that a draft constitution will be available for review in 2022, by which time another referendum will be held in which Chileans will either accept or reject the new constitution. In the case of the latter, Chile will retain its current constitution.


Towards a more representative constitution: lessons for Australia


The Chilean government’s enactment of measures to ensure gender parity and Indigenous representation in the constitutional committee herald the possibility of a truly democratic and innovative foundational text for the country. The international community, in particular Australia, should pay close attention to the outcomes of Chile’s constitutional redrafting process.


Chile is the only Latin American nation yet to acknowledge its Indigenous peoples in its constitution. Similarly, Australia is the only first-world nation yet to do so. As Chile seeks to join a growing number of nations empowering their Indigenous peoples through structural change, this trend may provide cause for Australia to re-examine the debate surrounding constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.


In Chile, as in Australia, Indigenous land rights issues and climate issues are intersecting with increasing frequency. Water, for example, which is entirely privatized under Chile’s current constitution, is at the heart of most major environmental problems facing the country’s First Nation’s peoples. There is speculation that Indigenous representation in the constitutional committee could produce more ecologically minded institutional frameworks that ensure the constitutional protection of natural resources.


Whether or not this ambitious constitutional reform project accomplishes all that Chileans had hoped for, it has allowed the country to cast aside the legacy of the Pinochet era, hopefully in favour of a more democratic and egalitarian future.


Sophie Coombs is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.