Overview:

A resounding defeat for the Constituent Assembly's new green constitution in its September 4 referendum. Although two past votes endorsed the creation of a new constitution by a citizens' group, Chile's next steps to constitutional reform are unclear.

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A referendum held September 4 in Chile, on whether to accept or reject a new constitution developed by a specially created Constituent Assembly, received a resounding “No” from 62 percent of some 12.8 million voters.

The new constitution, developed by a representative body of 155 average citizens in the wake of Chile’s massive 2019 protests against the country’s stark rich-poor divide, was one of the greenest in the world. It would have compelled the state to shift to environmentally conscious economies, and to focus more on lower-class and rural uplift, in part through the creation of greater Indigenous autonomy. It would also have replaced a constitution established under the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980, which shifted Chile into a strongly neoliberal state, possibly the first in the world, and set much of the country’s current class stratification into motion.

Although some critics of the constitution complained of its length and questioned its clarity, the most common social-media positioning of this latest constitution was as a descent into Communism, sure to turn Chile into the next Venezuela or Cuba. Some also pathologized the Constituent Assembly as undemocratic, even though it too had been subject to a referendum. The most typical profile of a “No” voter is an upper class or Southern-Chile-dwelling man between 45 and 59 years old. The general profile of a “Yes” voter is a woman under 24 or over 60, and/or a voter for Chile’s youngest ever president, Gabriel Boric Font, and/or in the middle or lower class.

The implications of this referendum are not yet clear, because Chileans haven’t forgotten that Colombia’s 2016 referendum to end a fifty-year civil war also yielded a “No” vote, but without changing the government’s commitment to pushing through a peace deal. In this case, though, President Boric finds himself in precarious territory, as ex-presidential candidate José Antonio Kast is now well-positioned to leverage this referendum to lead the Chilean government back to right wing politics. Kast is well known for his homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-feminism, Pinochet-era apologetics, and climate-change denialism. His objections to the new constitution bolstered a wealth of far-right misinformation in the lead-up to this referendum.

Campaigners for a greener and more equitable Chile now have a ways to go to see their dream realized in the country’s laws. But their three-year road from 2019 protests to this point was never easy, and major societal transformations rarely take root all at once. Chile remains a key site of socioeconomic and democratic discourse: an early home to neoliberalism as a comprehensive state project, and now to ambitious, if also highly uneven efforts to imagine a better world to come.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.