Chile is not the leftist society President Boric thought it was
Most Chileans rejected the progressive-leaning new Constitution in a vote held earlier this month. Many on the left have blamed misinformation, but a deeper analysis suggests it failed because progressive urban lawmakers mistook the country’s prevailing anti-establishment sentiment as a sign of support for their leftist ideas. President Gabriel Boric must learn these lessons if a second constitutional rewrite — still supported by a majority of voters — is to have any chance of success.
Chileans overwhelmingly rejected the new constitution in a national referendum. The rechazo option prevailed in all demographies, winning the vote in 338 of the 346 municipalities. Two years before, in contrast, 338 of the 346 municipalities voted in favor of a new constitution.
The question is why millions of average Chileans changed their opinion over the past two years. Many on the left have blamed misinformation, which certainly played its part, but a deeper analysis suggests the referendum took place in a society where an anti-establishment sentiment prevails. One where, like many parts of the world today, “the people” do not trust decisions made by “the elite.” While this anti-establishment sentiment led to the creation of a Constitutional Convention with a high number of political novices unassociated with the traditional parties, these same politicians soon became perceived as a new elite. Many everyday Chileans soon lost their trust in the very institution they had voted to create.
The three most cited factors in voting against the Constitution in a recent Cadem poll were a:
- Negative view of the Constitutional lawmakers,
- The uncertainty created by the drafted Constitution, and
- Disagreement with the proposed plurinational state.
Rising distrust in the political establishment was already evident in 2019 when the massive street protests that sparked the recent plebiscite took place. These demonstrations started as a protest against a subway fare rise and escalated after episodes of police brutality against young protesters. However, the movement quickly turned into a protest against the previous 30 years and the cozy relationship between Chile’s largest private conglomerates and center-left and center-right political elites. During the weeks of protests, hundreds of thousands protested countrywide with flags of indigenous Mapuches and soccer clubs instead of political parties. That disenchantment with traditional political parties has since grown. In 2017, new parties received 27% of the vote — by 2021, that figure had increased to 82%.
Governing and drafting laws in this environment is challenging. Politicians must connect with their constituencies. The conservative and former President Sebastian Piñera failed at this attempt, leaving office in March 2022 with a 24% approval rating. The Constitutional Convention, with a majority of progressives who wanted sweeping changes to protect the environment and grant rights to minorities, also failed to connect with the people.
In the 2019 protests, most Chileans saw Piñera, a billionaire, as a distant member of the wealthy elite from Santiago. In 2022, most Chileans saw the Constitutional Convention as an institution dominated by a progressive elite from big urban centers, detached from their identities in the urban periphery or countryside.
The rural municipality of Petorca highlights this disconnect. Most of Petorca’s residents are severely affected by a shortage of water, which is redirected to avocado farms. This is permitted because the current constitution allows for the private ownership of water. Convention members’ proposal to make water an essential public good should have won over Petorca’s voters, but a majority rejected the text. Why Petorca’s residents seemingly voted against their best interests can be explained by a meeting between members of the Constitutional Convention and the municipality’s ranch club. The mostly young, left-wing activists criticized the popular rodeos held in the town as animal mistreatment during the reunion, according to a report by national newspaper La Tercera. The new Constitution would treat animals as “sentient beings” and “rightful of living a life free from mistreatment.”
This incident speaks to comments made after the referendum by Rodrigo Baño, Professor of Sociology at the University of Chile. He notes the stark contrast in the values and lifestyle of urban progressives with those of other segments of the population. This contrast is especially great when applied to rural Chileans, urban low-paid workers, and conservatives, he says.
In short, any effort by Convention members to explain, for example, the benefits of making water a public good, was lost in the hubbub of cultural dissonance. Entire issues around which urban progressives had nothing in common with large segments of Chilean society became focal points for disagreement and created a breeding ground for misinformation. For example, there was misinformation claiming that pensions would be expropriated and that the new Constitution forbade eating meat and rodeos. However, this misinformation prevailed to such a degree precisely because the different values and cultural norms of many Convention members made its framing so credible.
Looking ahead at the Boric administration’s promise to create a new Constitutional Convention, the government, if it is to succeed, must this time find ways to connect with people’s daily demands — better economy and security, for example — while remaining sensitive to their social identities.
The Boric administration must also avoid assuming, once again, that the October 2019 social unrest (the estallido social) meant a turn to the left by the majority of the population. In reality, the protests were the peak of an anti-establishment sentiment that had been long simmering, not a wider ideological shift in Chilean society.
There are signs that President Boric has learned these lessons. First, he has acknowledged that the Constitution couldn’t go in a different direction from the aspirations of most Chileans. Second, his post-referendum cabinet reshuffle has seen the appointment of more moderate figures.
Lesson learned aside, Boric can still count on public support for a constitutional rewrite. Despite his dismal personal approval ratings, a recent Cadem poll suggested about 67% of voters still want a new constitution. While it remains to be seen if a bad economy and congressional opposition put pay to this desire, it is clear this is a process that is far from over.
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