After this week’s election in Chile, the country’s freshly minted constituent assembly will soon begin to redraft the country’s dictatorship-era constitution. Though Chile shares many governance challenges of its Latin American peers and its approach is not risk-free, the country could chart a new path toward addressing citizens’ demands and dealing with anti-establishment sentiments constructively in ways other Latin American countries can emulate.

An Alternative Tonic to Discontent

This matters greatly because few of the problems that led to mass protests in many Latin American countries in 2019 have been solved. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has aggravated most of them. Consider the current situation in Colombia. A tax increase has lit the fuse and sparked mass protests fueled by long-standing grievances ranging from inequality, poor public services, unemployment, police violence, and the perception that political elites are (at best) out of touch and inept or (at worst) corrupt. Unless something changes, the current upheaval in Colombia, then, may be a harbinger of coming political turmoil throughout Latin America.

Oliver Stuenkel
Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, Brazil. He is also a nonresident scholar affiliated with the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on Latin American politics and foreign policy, as well as China’s and the United States’ role in Latin America.
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Chile’s recent plebiscite shows there is a different way to respond to unrest. The vote came after a period of turmoil that began in the capital of Santiago in 2019. A rise in metro fares triggered mass protests and ultimately led to the country’s worst political crisis since its re-democratization in 1989—less than a day after President Sebastián Piñera infamously and fatefully described Chile as an “oasis” in a sea of political upheaval across Latin America. In subsequent weeks, the country faced far more severe challenges than many observers originally believed—ranging from extreme inequality to human rights violations committed by security forces. Even so, Chileans succeeded in channeling their massive discontent into a remarkably rich and highly inclusive debate about what kind of country they would like to live in, which ultimately culminated in two major elections: last October’s referendum on whether to establish a constituent assembly—which almost 79 percent of voters approved—and the election of the assembly’s members last weekend.

This outcome stands in stark contrast to the way other Latin American countries have responded to similar political instability. For example, in June 2013, an increase in bus fares in the Brazilian city of São Paulo led to a historic wave of protests across the country, which fueled profound anti-establishment sentiments. These grievances contributed to years of political instability and paralysis, ultimately helping pave the way for the rise of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, whose campaign rhetoric contained strong authoritarian elements and who has actively sought to undermine Brazil’s democracy since assuming the presidency two years ago.

The Risks of a New Constitution

In Chile, voters in this week’s election of the members of the constituent assembly—which included gender parity and reserved seats for Indigenous candidates—also showed strong anti-establishment sentiments and trounced traditional parties. The ruling center-right Chile Vamos coalition had its worst showing since the country’s democratization three decades ago, failing to achieve the one-third minority needed to veto any proposed constitutional articles. Further, a left-wing coalition including the Communist Party and the progressive Frente Amplio coalition obtained more seats than the coalition that includes the traditional center-left Concertación coalition.

This political reckoning suggests that the constitutional draft the assembly will negotiate is likely to include more clearly defined social rights—one of the key demands protesters made in 2019. Yet there should be no illusions about Chile’s risky path ahead. Including social rights in the new constitution does not guarantee such rights would be realized, as the case of Brazil’s detailed but ultimately unwieldy constitution attests. After all, such measures may require tax increases like the ones that have led to recent protests in Colombia. Investors may fear the temporary uncertainty the coming months will bring in terms of central bank autonomy, for example. Finally, some analysts have warned that constituent assemblies in Venezuela and Bolivia had a negative impact on democracy—yet those assemblies were promoted by leaders with autocratic ambitions, in strongly differing circumstances from Chile’s current political context. Finally, out of the constituent assembly’s 155 members, the largest bloc is independents—whose behavior is hard to predict. And since only 40 percent of the country’s population voted in the plebiscite, some could question the constitution’s legitimacy when it needs to be approved in another plebiscite in 2022.

Chile as a Regional Trail Blazer

And yet, if Chile succeeds in preserving the positive elements of its model and addressing its major shortcomings in an orderly manner, it could become an inspiration for the rest of Latin America, which faces similar challenges. Achieving this would likely entail, for example, transitioning to a genuine social market economy with better public services, universal social protections, and mechanisms to reduce extreme inequality. If Chile fails, it is bound to create a deeply worrisome precedent for the future of the entire region, where structural weaknesses were brutally exposed during the pandemic and where democracy can be expected to come under significant pressure.

After all, Chile is, in many ways, well-positioned to find a solution, given the relative strength of its institutions, vibrant civil society, free media, and decent economic performance in recent years. Observers across Latin America, a region currently lacking a sense of direction or common vision of how to address its challenges, will be paying close attention.

Correction: This piece has been amended to correct the political affiliation of the Concertación coalition to center-left (not center-right).