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Referendums Old and New: A Midwestern View on a Chilean Constitution

9 mins read
People line-up to vote during a referendum on a new Chilean constitution in Valparaiso, Chile, September 4, 2022. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

Earlier this month, citizens of Chile voted by a significant margin to reject the nation’s newly proposed constitution. A collection of progressive policies championed by the newly elected president, leftist, and student activist Gabriel Boric, the constitution sought to end an era of neoliberal policy that had outlived the brutal rule of General Pinochet. While Boric’s election created hope for attaining this goal, it quickly evaporated under the strain of squabbling coalitions and the arduous task of reforging a constitution. The plebiscite only confirmed what was already known: Boric has, for now, failed to carry the fervor of the 2019-2021 protests into meaningful legislative change. I am all too familiar with this cycle. I still remember videos of Chilean streets choked in white gas and crossed with barricades, an echo of the fiery nights in my own city. Like Chile, our anger brought systems to their knees but felt weak in the face of renewed opposition just months later: something between the riots and the ballots shifted the balance of power.

Many would like us all to just forget the Minneapolis Uprising of 2020, and its reprise in 2021, but walking down Lake Street you can still see boarded-up windows of burnt-out buildings yet to be demolished. The cries of furious resistance still lie written in scrawled multicolored calligraphy under heaps of twisted metal and ash. Reactionary forces try in vain to make us forget, destroying community spaces under the cover of night, stealing away the relics of our brief glimpse of revolution. 

The uprising became only a memory to defend on Nov. 2, 2021, when our own referendum, the infamous Ballot Question 2, was similarly rejected. The ballot had its own troubled origins as an attempt to reconcile the disparate policy goals of various political factions. It was rewritten ad infinitum and caught up in innumerable court disputes. The fact that the judiciary eventually relented and allowed it on the ballot at all is likely only a product of the political climate of possibility in the year following the uprising. In its final iteration, Ballot Question 2 was more than 100 long, and not a single one of them dealt with accountability, funding, or even the use of force. The result was the worst of both worlds: the mayor and his lackeys, along with the state GOP, could paint it as threatening the end of police in the city, but the ballot lacked any substantive measures to create a cohesive argument in favor of it. The media, of course, was all too eager to report the defeat of its new favorite boogeyman: out of touch radicals who had infiltrated the protests from outside the state (there was little evidence to suggest significant out-of-state agitation, but casting it this way was effective at separating protesters into good and bad without alienating local constituents). However, little attention was paid to the miraculous fact that, despite all of these factors — the ambiguous wording of the question, endless court battles, a hostile coordinated media campaign, and the opposition from the political establishment — almost 45% of residents still supported Ballot Question 2.

Can the same charitable analysis be applied, then, to Chile? It is true that 38% of voters supported a complete overhaul of the country’s political apparatus, with a document that would, among other things, de-privatize water, integrate the demands of the indigenous Mapuche people, and massively expand labor rights and the rights of women. Unlike Minneapolis, though, the plebiscite results are in strong contrast to the 55% of votes that Boric received just one year prior. In addition, other municipal races in Minneapolis held on the same night as the 2021 Ballot Question failed to support the larger shift towards the right extrapolated by the results of Question 2. On the very timely issue of policing, for example, reformists and even a few abolitionist candidates ended the night with roughly the same number of city council representation as they did before, despite a few individual wards shifting hands. Returning to the 20% gap in Chile, the question remains: is this a rejection of the leftist ideals of the popular uprisings which catapulted Boric to power, or a more specific statement about the new constitution as a document? Perhaps only time will tell, as the newly restructured Boric coalition will no doubt launch another attempt at constitutional change, and if not a complete rewrite, then certainly a slate of amendments altering the current document. Inevitably, Chile’s 2025 election will put the young leader himself back on the ballot. I, for one, am not particularly optimistic about his chances, even if he manages to scrape together some legislative success. 

This pessimism stems mostly from the specific failure of the Boric administration to effectively agitate for the large-scale change it seeks. For all of his leftist bona fides, Boric, largely under the influence of the corporatist finance minister Mario Marcel, has opted for more traditional politics, forming anemic coalitions with center-left groups on conciliatory grounds and eschewing the politics of mass mobilization that were the foundation of his campaign. His administration also hobbled itself by failing to reach agreements with Mapuche communities, quickly abandoning mediation and opting instead for continuing the longstanding campaign of repression against a group that before had served as a key constituency for those seeking political and social reform. This crucial error can be seen in the rate of almost 80%, with most Mapuche regions rejecting Boric’s new constitution. Given these mistakes, the campaign had no chance of facing an inherently monumental task with a well-funded and coordinated opposition. 

The challenge of drawing support from movements, which often encompass large coalition groups and forging specific policies, is never an easy one. This circumstance is observed as much in the absurd length of the new constitution as well as the constant practical and legal confusion surrounding the Minneapolis Ballot Question. Simple demands will always be easier to explain to a populace and thus agitate for, and there are few demands more convoluted and harder to unify than those of Boric’s constitution. The ambiguity of language of these referendums made it all the more easy for reactionary forces to lie, distort, and otherwise malign them. In both cases, failure resulted not from a lack of widespread original support, but from long processes through which the political mandate slowly dissipated. Had the plebiscite occurred in 2021, it would no doubt have been far more competitive, and had Question 2 represented more of the political will of the uprisings, it may have prevailed even through the protestation of the mayor. The twenty-point swing shows us that the issues of these referendums lay not in the general sentiment of the population, but in the ability of political organizations to effectively capitalize on the militancy and political upheaval that mass movements can potentially represent. The truth at the heart of this analysis is that the real force for change lies in the power realized by the uprisings, which exists even when not converted into a few sentences on a ballot. These moments of mass mobilization remind us, just for a moment, of the world that we can win. 

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