Voters and Quotas: Crunch Time for Chile’s Millennial Revolutionaries
Demonstrations in Santiago, Chile, 2019. Photo by Juan Manuel Núñez Méndez on Unsplash

Voters and Quotas: Crunch Time for Chile’s Millennial Revolutionaries

The proposal for a radical identitarian constitution has set off a popular counterrevolution in the run-up to a fateful referendum on September 4th.

Rasmus Sonderriis
Rasmus Sonderriis
17 min read

“It’s the battle of battles,” cries Guillermo Teillier, chairman of the communists who are junior partners in the ruling coalition. He knows about battles from the years of armed resistance to Pinochet. That dictatorship ended in 1990, yet its 1980 constitution remains in force. Tellier hopes voters will replace it on September 4th. The 78-year-old notes nostalgically that the plebiscite will be held on the same date as the presidential election in 1970, when he voted to make Salvador Allende the world’s first-ever elected Marxist head of state. “Let’s make history,” enthuses the official television spot. Across this 19-million-people-strong, hockey-stick-shaped country wedged between the Andes and the Pacific, the Left is hard at work persuading the masses to approve of a document they claim will secure vital social rights.

“Rights that won’t be worth the paper they’re written on,” scoffs the right-wing opposition. They believe the proposed document is a collectivist nightmare that will diminish freedom, weaken property rights, and stifle enterprise, thereby making social services impossible to finance. They see the ecology and feminism as mere window-dressing for a power grab. “This is designed to pave the way for a far-left dictatorship,” warns Axel Kaiser, a prominent libertarian.

In the middle are those who have yet to make up their minds. They get to decide the referendum’s result. Few will read the full document (which has just been made official), but they are weighing the pros and cons of what they pick out of a highly polarized debate. However, until the revolution began, they were thought to be asleep.

Violence begets public services

“Chile woke up!” This mantra rang from the throats of those who found something to admire about a wave of riots ignited on October 18th, 2019, gutting one city after another. Metro stations in the capital Santiago were first to be set alight, resulting in over 20 fatalities. The spark was a fare increase of 30 pesos (about four cents), but as another slogan explained, “It’s not just 30 pesos, it’s 30 years!” As the protestors and their intellectual supporters would have it, Chilean society had dozed into a neoliberal slumber since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Finally, gushed progressive media around the globe, the people had regained consciousness and decided to confront the market fundamentalism they’d inherited from the military regime.

Then-president Sebastián Piñera soon found himself looking at an approval rating of six percent. Just a week before the violence was unleashed, he had called his country “a true oasis in a Latin America in turmoil.” Center-Right politicians like him liked to think that, just as Pinochet’s brutal 1973–90 regime had inoculated the population against authoritarianism, so the disastrous Allende government of 1970–73 had inoculated them against socialism. But the explosion of popular discontent challenged the narrative of Chile as “Latin America’s South Korea”—a growth miracle, fueled by economic liberty and foreign investment.

To the far-Left, by contrast, Chile had become “Latin America’s Israel” (no compliment intended). Around the globe, progressives celebrated the uprising as if it were the homecoming of a prodigal son. Dismissive of Chilean democracy and the rule of law, they romanticized the primera línea, the young advance guard rampaging through the streets with slingshots and combustion agents. What the fire spared was left splattered in graffiti. Within a few days, all window displays were boarded up, and many have remained so in disfigured city centers.

Commerce was plundered and shops were razed to the ground. Attempts to enforce the law were met with a hail of missiles. Police stations were firebombed at night. The officers had only rubber pellets with which to respond. These damaged the eyes of some protestors, creating martyrs for the revolutionary cause, and allowed activists to conjure up a crackdown apparatus reminiscent of Pinochet’s heyday. Cell-phone videos showed heavy-handed arrests, but also insane aggression by fearless thugs. Hotels, churches, public offices, and even hospitals were ransacked and set ablaze. At short notice, Chile had to give up hosting the COP25 Climate Conference scheduled for December 2019.

At the time, Gabriel Boric, today’s President of the Republic, was a 33-year-old leftist member of the Chamber of Deputies. He did explicitly condemn the violence, but placed most of the blame on an indecent societal model. He particularly identified with the frustration over amiguismo, the nepotistic practice of passing taxpayer-funded jobs to friends and family. Or as consolation prizes to allies for losing an election. This was not how he would govern, oh no.

The world’s press depicted the upheaval as understandable anger produced by economic inequality. Little attention was paid to old and stale politicians defending their records during the much-maligned “30 years” since 1990, which saw not only massive economic growth, but also less inequality for each successive generation. But in fairness, the demand for more public services and fewer market-based solutions came not just from violent fanatics and their apologists. It was the will of the people.

On October 25th, more than a million protesters marched peacefully in Santiago. Some supported the rebellion; others were merely determined to get something good out of the mayhem. The atmosphere was exuberant with a nebulous ideological bent. Placards denounced the privatization of pensions, education, healthcare, and highways.

The refounding of Chile

If a street rebellion could overthrow an elected president, Chile would lose its shine and become just another unstable Latin American country. So instead, on November 15th, 2019, Chile’s Congress agreed on a roadmap to a new constitution. The hard-Left initially saw this as an attempt to defang a revolution fought from the barricades, so they opposed it. But Gabriel Boric was in favor. Radicals in the street called him a traitor, but he insisted on an institutional way out of the mess, which would eventually win him the presidency.

Of course, a constitution is not a magic wand that can be waved to materialize expensive public services. However, it offered the prospect of a fresh start and a symbolic break with Chile’s dictatorial past. Pinochet’s constitution originally vested more power in the military than in elected representatives. It has since been thoroughly reformed to become compatible with democracy, but its critics insist on calling it a “neoliberal straitjacket.”

Following a Coronavirus delay, a first referendum was held on October 25th, 2020. Fully 78 percent of voters approved the next step—an election to choose members of the Constitutional Convention who would draft a new constitution. This was held on May 15th–16th, 2021. This time, however, many of the 22 percent of voters who had voted to keep the current constitution stayed at home. Overall turnout dropped to a paltry 43 percent.

Furthermore, 17 seats had been reserved for 10 indigenous peoples, whose representatives won, on average, with 2.6 times fewer votes than other candidates. This system had been devised by Congress, and was lauded from left to right as a stupendous racial reckoning. In reality, it was a cop-out. Historical discrimination should have prompted the parties to include Amerindian candidates and let voters lift them to national prominence based on their ideas and abilities. A healthy democracy runs on competing visions, not ethnic carve-ups. There is no indication that people of Amerindian extraction vote that differently from other citizens. However, those who are active in internal ethnic politics do lean far-left.

Upshot? The 155 people tasked with writing the new Magna Carta were light years to the left of any elected assembly in the history of Chile. Progressive columnists in the US and the UK were over the moon.

The skewed election result sprang mainly from a national fit of antiestablishment contempt. Candidates from traditional parties—those with experience of consensus-seeking—were dumped in favor of combative activists. From day one, they chanted slogans and gave the Convention the air of a Revolutionary Assembly. Their first demand was to “free the political prisoners,” including rioters charged with vandalism, arson, looting, and battery. This was beyond their mandate. Instead they passed internal regulations against “denying, justifying or minimizing” historical human-rights violations, not just under Pinochet, but also during the uprising unleashed on October 18th, 2019. “Respectable democracies do place limits on freedom of expression,” some convention members and leftist politicians pointed out. “You also can’t deny the Holocaust in Germany, can you?”

Outbreak of Boricmanía

When Gabriel Boric won the second-round presidential election on December 19th, 2021, the revolution appeared to have been institutionalized. Upon taking the helm, he was going to turn the wheel to port, but not too sharply. Social democrats joined his coalition, watering down the influence of the communists. Boric touted his cutting-edge brand of multicolored progressivism, which would be unrelated to the olive-green human-rights violators of Cuba and Venezuela.

On March 11th, 2022, he set sail on his presidential honeymoon cruise. His flagship, the Constitutional Convention, had cast off eight months earlier. It had not been smooth sailing. For some reason, its crew had booed a children’s orchestra performing the national anthem. Then its chemo-bald deputy vice-president, catapulted to iconic status by a diagnosis of terminal cancer, turned out to have been afflicted only by syphilis. His subsequent ejection reduced the number of elected Convention members to 154.

Nevertheless, though clearly separate vessels, the Government galleon and the Convention frigate together looked like the invincible Flotilla of the Revolution. It was widely assumed that the 78 percent support won in the “entrance plebiscite” on October 25th, 2020, would ensure that support for whatever document the Convention produced would not fall below the 50 percent needed to secure its approval in the “exit plebiscite” on September 4th, 2022. “Any outcome is better than a constitution written by four generals,” the new president blithely remarked.

The public quickly forgave Boric his first broken promise—namely, to abolish the First Lady’s Cabinet. He had previously lashed out against this institution, describing it as a sexist remnant at odds with his vision of a meritocracy. But now his girlfriend would get her taxpayer-funded staff after all, and contribute in the social arena, albeit with a somehow entirely different philosophy that would “depersonalize” the office.

Chile was by now in the grip of Boricmanía. However, political commentators began to employ a musical metaphor: Otra cosa es con guitarra (“It’s different with a guitar”). Being young and swinging to the new tunes as an air guitarist in opposition does not guarantee a melodious performance when it is time to strum the real strings of governance.

Alas, the dissonance did not take long to grate on Chileans ears.

Beginners’ blunders

Responsibility for maintaining law and order doesn’t play well with ambivalence about political violence. Still, the new Minister of the Interior, Izkia Siches, expected that her long record of calling for demilitarization would count for something when, in one of her first acts in March, her pro-dialogue convoy rolled into the Amerindian community of Temucuicui. Instead, she was greeted by the sound of gunfire. Sheltering behind policemen, she declined to file a report and played the episode down as “a protest, like so many that occur across our country.”

Even so, the government gradually changed its tune, admitting that the indigenous cause is sometimes invoked as a smokescreen for gangsterism that harms rather than helps indigenous persons. It reluctantly declared a state of emergency in the conflict zone in May. Paradoxically, this measure will no longer be available if the new constitution comes into force.

An orchestral genre that wins more mockery than applause from the crowd is the neopuritan cancel-cultural performances of the young rulers. Feminist outrage thwarted Fernando Monsalve’s nomination as a regional environmental supremo and reduced him to a jellyfish. He confessed his misogyny because 10 years previously he had remarked on Facebook that “all the women along the beach front are gorgeous,” and illustrated his post with an image of a female bottom clad in leggings.

The modern-minded Latin American Left has truly cast off the old guard’s toxic machismo-leninismo, making the new man more moral than Che Guevara ever imagined. But Aníbal Navarrete could not live up to it, and so missed the chance to become a local education boss. Never mind that he had taught seventh-graders that vandalizing metro stations is a justifiable act of protest. What tripped him up were 10-year-old gay jokes unearthed on Twitter. Normal people did agree that they made him unfit to be an educator, but only on account of his kindergarten-level spelling.

To check on the president’s solemn promise to end nepotism, the press has scrutinized the government’s numerous appointments to embassies and other official bodies. For all his meritocratic pronouncements pre-election, a new record has been set for handing plum jobs to unqualified friends and family members of powerful movers in politics and media. Among those assigned to the 400 highest posts, around one-third have recently lost an election.

Then, in late June, the revamped First Lady’s Cabinet was unveiled. Its powers had been expanded, and now clashed with the remits of other ministries. As for the pledge to “depersonalize” it, it had been rechristened the “Irina Karamanos Cabinet,” the internet domain for which had been registered as early as March. It took just a day of social-media memes feasting on the ridicule before the name was changed again, but the damage had been done.

So, while sanctimonious millennials have been proving themselves at least as prone to human frailty as their predecessors, the big challenges that voters care about remain unaddressed: rising crime, high inflation, low pensions, and uncontrolled immigration. A week into the presidential term, 50 percent approved and 20 percent disapproved of Boric’s performance. That honeymoon lasted a week. The latest figures are 33 percent approval and 62 percent disapproval. Worse still for the revolutionary project, in the many different polls on the exit plebiscite, approval languishes between four and 18 points behind rejection, with 10–30 percent still undecided.

This time, Chile truly “woke up”! Between the Constitutional Convention’s antics and the Boric administration’s blunders, the political alarm bell has shaken the nation out of its revolutionary trance.

It ain’t over till the person of size sings

On July 4th, the final draft of the proposed constitution was ceremoniously passed from the President of the Constitutional Convention to the President of the Republic. Numerous dignitaries were in attendance, but not the four ex-presidents who had served during those allegedly terrible “30 years.” To the October revolutionaries that would have been a farce, like Lenin entertaining the Tsar. They decided COVID regulations precluded the presence of four more old people. Following an outcry, invitations were issued after all. Now the slighted elders took turns to decline, though at least one of them, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, will be campaigning on behalf of the new constitution.

Can public opinion be turned around? There are still almost two months to go before showdown. Incumbency can be leveraged with cash handouts and extra airtime. Boric can repeat his move between the first and second round of the presidential election, which was to shift to the center and portray the vote as a fight between the reactionary Pinochetista Right and The People. He recently paid a visit to ex-president Ricardo Lagos, a social democrat whom he had previously lambasted as “the maker of the malaise in Chile.” Only this time it was to tell Lagos that, actually, those 30 years had not been so bad after all. Only the bad old constitution did not allow for something better.

A little moderation could go a long way. For example, the document’s preamble was intended to be an ode to the revolution. The words “with the force of the youth” had been written to pay homage to the primera línea street fighters. However, rattled by plummeting opinion polls, the Convention dumped this part just before the deadline. Some of them remain optimistic that, with their own copies to hand, people will no longer be misled by the right-wing media’s distortions and lies, and will duly flock to approve.

So, what does the document say? The big picture has been clear from the drafts circulating for months: a massive expansion of the role of the state in delivering services, and especially in upholding a new moral order of ubiquitous ethnic and gender quotas. The Convention’s requirement that each article receive two-thirds approval has slightly tempered the economic radicalism but not the identity politics. If the current constitution is a neoliberal straitjacket, its proposed replacement is to become a woke chastity belt. There will be a key for making love with equity, but forget about any domination-game hanky-panky.

Still speaking sexist

This constitution also opens with the words “We, the people,” but it is about 10 times longer than the American version. “We,” for instance, is rendered in Spanish as Nosotras y nosotros. It has become no less verbose for being written in lenguaje inclusivo. This is a socio-linguistically engineered dialect premised upon the insight that Spanish grammar is sexist. Short of reforming the irreformable, it offers cumbersome workarounds to save the heirs to the language of Cervantes from speaking sexist, leaving them instead speaking like idiots. Clearly, the only way to resolve this was the authentic radicalism of cancelling Spanish.

Society might not be easily freed from sexism, but it can be freed from grammatical gender and even gendered pronouns by adopting Mapudungún, the “Tongue of the Land.” This is mastered by a dwindling number of the Mapuche, who account for around 80 percent of the 12 percent or so of Chileans who self-identify as Amerindians. It is poetic, nuanced, and rich, but the Convention only used it for some formulaic rituals. Alas, for all the talk of the wild-eyed revolutionaries’ maximalismo and indigenismo, per their Article 12.1 declaring Spanish to be the national language, the conversation in Chile will continue to be framed within the colonizer’s structurally sexist tongue.

The same number of men and women were guaranteed a seat in the Constitutional Convention, regardless of voting. Jaws dropped among feminists and male chauvinists alike when the gender-parity algorithm decided that 11 women were therefore required to give up their seats to men with fewer votes—in some cases less than half as many. Another five seats had to be resolved in the other direction, which left a total of 16 candidates feeling cheated, and ought to have left another 16 feeling guilty about taking voters for a ride.

Many observers simply focused on the net total of six seats lost by women as a result of rules meant to benefit them. Did this prove to the Constitutional Convention that the cultural struggle had been won and that gender quotas were no longer needed? Not at all. Instead, the makers of the new social order went one-up on smashing the patriarchy and decided that the female quota could be anywhere between 50 and 100 percent. Article 6.2 in full:

All collegial bodies of the state, autonomous constitutional entities, senior management of government administration, as well as the boards of public and semi-public companies must have a gender-parity composition that ensures that at least 50% of their members are women. [my italics]

Article 49.2 stipulates that the state must redistribute domestic chores to ensure “social and gender co-responsibility.” This will allow for constitutional redress for a man with a lazy wife. But not if she beats him up. Articles 27.1 and 312.4. protect females and sexual minorities from domestic violence, but there is no mention of heterosexual men. Not to worry, because gender stereotypes will be done away with. Article 343j does it in the justice system and Article 40 in people’s sex lives.

Rejectionist diversity

“There are a thousand reasons to say no,” said the pro-democracy campaign in the run-up to the 1988 plebiscite that led to the toppling of Pinochet. This line is now being dusted off for re-use. The vast new constitution composed of 388 articles has something to which almost everyone can say no.

Churchgoers will vote against legal abortion and the requirement that their religious institutions respect the various revolutionary “principles that this Constitution establishes” (67.4). Homeowners will oppose expropriation of their property at a “fair price” rather than the market rate that compensation is presently required to meet (78.4). Wage-earners currently spending seven percent of their income on health insurance of their choice will dislike having to shell out for a private arrangement on top of that, or being forced into a public system with long waiting times. They are unlikely to be reassured by Article 44.1’s stipulation that “every person has the right to health and full wellbeing, including physically and mentally.”

The legal profession is alarmed by the establishment of a politician-controlled Council of Justice composed in accordance with ethnic and gender quotas. The single body will be vested with supreme powers to nominate, discipline, and dismiss judges, who will be required to reach their verdicts considering not only the law, but also “the gender perspective” (Article 312) and “the intersectional approach” (311).

But perhaps the biggest reason voters are less rather than more likely to approve the constitution once they’ve had a chance to dig into the text for themselves is that—as in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador—it reclassifies the republic as plurinacional. “What does that mean?” you may ask. Many Chileans do too.

Racially segregated elections

For all the rigidity of gender quotas, nothing prevents a man from voting for a woman or vice versa. The plurinational concept, on the other hand, requires voters to cast ballots for candidates of their own race, ethnicity, or “nation.”

How is this defined? Plenty of Amerindian blood runs in the veins of the general population. South of the River Biobio, the Mapuche, the People of the Land resisted longer than any other natives in Latin America, first against the colonial rulers, then against the republic, until they fell victim to a land-grabbing genocide, the euphemistically named Pacificación of 1861–83. Chileans of immigrant stock also take pride in Mapuche heroes of history, and some even self-identify as Mapuche in the census. The ethnic allocation of seats for the Constitutional Convention was based on this self-identification data. However, so far, only about half of those who have declared themselves as “belonging to an indigenous people” have had this claim duly state-certified, so the rest remain ineligible to vote in separate elections.

The term “indigenous” evokes tight-knit rural communities holding out against the dominant culture encroaching on their way of life imbued with ancestral cosmovision. In reality, the vast majority of Chilean Amerindians migrated to the cities long ago and acquired a mixture of identities. Indeed, some Constitutional Convention members elected on various ethnic tickets are only distinguishable from their white and mixed-race compatriots by a smattering of tribal garments and trinkets. They are middle-class professionals who command no indigenous tongue, but rehearse a studied language of ancient grievances and fresh demands. As spoken by Isabel Godoy, a white-passing accountant elected for the Colla people with just 631 votes: “We didn’t choose to be colonized, we didn’t choose to be assimilated, we didn’t choose to be robbed of our territories. This is a debt owed by the state.”

Isabel Godoy

In recent decades, the state has been buying up land and returning it to rural Mapuche communities in exchange for their stewardship of it. In the new constitution, this quid pro quo will be replaced by broad entitlements to ancestral territory for 12 peoples, many of whom have long been assimilated. The Selk’nam nation, for instance, has been considered extinct for 70 years. Now activists have identified a few hundred descendants. They have the same appearance and lifestyle as their non-indigenous neighbors, but in the country’s brave new plurinational world, they would be able to lay claim to the whole southern tip of Chile. It is also incongruous that these smaller nations will gain autonomy to rule their own affairs, yet still be guaranteed representation—even over-representation—at the national and regional level.

Even more controversially, there will be a separate system of justice for each ethnicity. Nobody is quite sure what this entails, but it reeks of inequality before the law. Finally, there is an indigenous veto “in those matters and affairs that affect them in their rights recognized in this constitution” (191.2). This could make many articles impossible to change. Indigenous leaders insist that this article refers only to displacement, military invasion, and the dumping of waste in their territory. However, it says what it says. Spanish grammar may be sexist, but it is also subtle. The subjunctive form of the verb “affect” implies that those matters and affairs are open-ended.

Fear of being accused of racism may have pushed many in the relatively white elite into accepting this. But ordinary people, who are predominantly mixed-race, do not feel personally burdened by historical debt. And while they may well support some territorial autonomy and the promotion of threatened cultures and languages, they will not agree to the creation of different classes of citizenship.

More battles ahead

So what comes next? Throughout the broad camp that opposes the adoption of this new document, there is a commitment to respecting the 78 percent who voted to change the constitution. If this proposal is voted down, the process will be rebooted, not aborted.

What might be learned before the next attempt? The president’s mother, no less, has complained of “a lack of legal scholarship” at the Constitutional Convention. Her son did not agree, but if he aspires to listen to his country, he should start by listening to her. A poll shows that 70 percent of citizens would like the new constitution to be penned by experts, not activists.

Even so, the critical decisions facing the country are political, not technical. In the years ahead, Chilean governance will continue to be a frontline in the battle between individual citizens’ rights and collective group rights.

PoliticsLatin AmericaChileIdentity

Rasmus Sonderriis

Rasmus Sonderriis is Danish-Chilean journalist specialising in Latin America and Ethiopia, and author of the comedy ‘Fifty Shades of Woke’. www.fiftyshadesofwoke.com