A voting site in Chile. (AP)

A voting site in Chile. (AP)


AS/COA Insider: Brian Winter on the Rightward Shift in Chile's New Constitutional Assembly

"The last few years [in Chile have seen] so many dramatic and surprising lurches from one end of the spectrum to the other," says the AS/COA vice president.

May 7 witnessed another development in Chile’s journey to a new constitution. Voters chose a second set of constitutional assembly members to write a new Magna Carta and right-wing parties won big, snagging 23 of the 51 seats. The draft document of the first assembly, noted for its progressive tilt, was rejected by voters in September 2022.

"The interesting thing to watch now will be whether the right commits the same mistake and tries to ram through a document that only appeals to their base," explained Brian Winter, AS/COA vice president of and Americas Quarterly editor-in-chief. He talked with Chile’s new political climate about what comes next, the increasing problem of security and voters’ constitutional apathy.

AS/COA Online: In the May 5 election, right-wing parties won the most seats for the body that will draft the new Constitution. Were you surprised by this result? 

Brian Winter: Not really. I had been in Chile in April, and one thing that got my attention was a poll that asked Chileans whether they would support a so-called estado de excepción in greater Santiago—a suspension of constitutional rights and the deployment of military to the streets ostensibly to reduce crime. Some 53 percent of Chileans said they would favor something like that. 

That reinforced what I felt when I was there, which was a relentless focus on crime. Crime in the country has definitely gotten worse over the last 10 years, especially over the last two or three years. In another poll, one in three Chileans say that they or a family member has been a victim of an assault or attempted assault in the last three months. 

The top issues in Chile right now, according to polls, are security, inflation, and immigration, followed by drug trafficking. The bottom line is: this is a right-wing agenda. The fact that not just the right, but the hard-right party of Jose Antonio Kast came away from this election with such strong numbers didn't really surprise me at all.

AS/COA Online: In the vote in May 2021, for the first set of constitutional assembly members, it was left-wing parties that won the most seats. Beyond crime, what has changed in Chile over the past two years that has enabled this shift? 

Winter: There was clearly a progressive moment in Chile in the wake of the 2019 protests and at the beginning of the pandemic, which was prompted partly because of unhappiness over the status quo. People in many countries were briefly willing to consider dramatic changes to the ground rules for their country. Chile was a prime example of that. There was so much dissatisfaction over health care and retirement plans. People wanted more dignity. They wanted to feel more like middle class citizens, so there was this upswell of support for dramatic changes. 

But what it seems happened was that the process got underway during the first attempt at writing a new Constitution in 2021 and 2022. And it was as if a majority of Chileans lost confidence, and then reached for the red handle and said, “I'm not actually supporting this anymore. Count me out.” And that's why we saw the rejection of the first attempt to rewrite the Constitution last September and why we saw the result on Sunday. I think there was a broad loss of confidence in the left, in part because of what President Gabriel Boric explicitly recognized on Sunday as a failure to listen to the other side. They overestimated their mandate. 

The interesting thing to watch now will be whether the right commits the same mistake and tries to ram through a document that only appeals to their base—overinterpreting what happened at the polls and not reading the public mood right. 

AS/COA Online: What is the path forward look like? What are the next steps in the process? 

Winter: The path forward is that the 51-member elected constitutional assembly will work with the general principles that have been decided by the so-called panel of experts, which already set out the main tent poles of what this constitution will stand for, which is that Chile is a social and democratic state of law. 

The panel of experts also affirmed the indivisibility of the Chilean nation. That’s a big conceptual departure from the previous attempt at a rewrite, which proposed recognizing different indigenous groups within Chilean territory and giving them their own judicial system. That was out the window this time even before this election result on May 7. 

The draft finalized by the assembly will be put to a vote on December 17, 2023. 

But what you really feel in Chile is just a total apathy around this whole process. I spoke to people when I was there who said things like, "I can't believe we have to go vote again,” because the last few years have not only seen so many elections, but so many dramatic and surprising lurches from one end of the spectrum to the other. 

I think for Chileans it's exhausting to try to keep up with it all. It comes back to a kind of central point: The reason Chile originally set out on this process was to attempt to make people's lives better, and to help Chileans who did not feel like they were a part of the middle class and did not feel like they had access to a fair system of pensions, schools, and hospitals. This whole constitutional process was meant to be an answer to what brought people to the streets in 2019. 

Now, it's true that some priorities have changed, but I think at the end of the day, that's still what people want. And if this next constitution fails to deliver on those things, then there is a chance that it will be rejected too. And this whole thing will ultimately amount to nothing. 

AS/COA Online: The first draft that was rejected, there was a big focus on the social rights, environmental protection, institutional reforms, and more. You already identified plurinationality as a tenant of the first draft that likely won't appear in the second draft. What other differences could we see between the documents? 

Winter: This commission of experts has already released set out the most important guideposts and following Sunday's election, the idea that there will be anything radical on either side—left or right—seems unlikely. 

I have seen many moderate Chileans encouraging the new constituent assembly to include some provisions for social rights and ensure that it's not just a carbon copy of the 1980 constitution. In order to get to a document that will get majority support in December, they will probably need to include some of these provisions for greater social rights, but I think they'll be fairly subtle points. 

For investors, a lot of uncertainty that has been around Chile for the last four years is probably gone. We now know that the “New Chile” that everybody has been talking about for the last four years is likely to look a lot like the “Old Chile.” And that will be good news for some people and not so good news for others. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.