Rejection of Chile’s Draft Constitution Serves a Blow to Progressive Government Agenda

Disinformation campaigns and fears that Indigenous rights would erode national identity and unity were leading factors in the charter’s defeat.

September 10, 2022

Chileans cast their vote on the draft constitution at the national stadium in Santiago on September 4 (Janitoalevic / CC0 1.0)

Chile’s progressive political project lies in tatters after Chileans overwhelmingly rejected the draft new constitution. The obligatory vote on Sunday, September 4 resulted in 62 percent rejection (Rechazo) and just 38 percent approval (Apruebo) of the proposed charter. The outcome shockingly contrasts the 2020 referendum, when Chileans voted 78 percent in favor of rewriting the constitution following months of protests, dubbed el estallido social (social outbreak), over the country’s brutal neoliberal economic system. Until consensus on the path forward is reached, the constitution enacted during the Pinochet regime (1973-1990) will remain in place.

The new constitution would have recognized the rights of Indigenous people for the first time, added environmental protections, increased gender parity, and guaranteed rights to affordable education and health care.

President Gabriel Boric has vowed to work with Congress to determine the next steps in the constitutional process. “I’m sure all this effort won’t have been in vain, because this is how countries advance best, learning from experience and, when necessary, turning back on their tracks to find a new route forward,” he told the press in response to the results.

However, it is unclear how the government will proceed with such a huge majority effectively voting against its agenda, which has promised a “feminist” and “ecological” style of government. The result is a confusing scenario: change is clearly desired by a majority despite the September 4 ballot, leaving many wondering just what lies behind Chilean voting behaviour and how it will impact Chile’s future political trajectory.

The Role of the Media

Ahead of the referendum, right-wing narratives dominated Chilean media, fueling the Rechazo campaign. Understanding Chile's media landscape sheds light on these dynamics. Two media conglomerates, El Mercurio Group and Copesa, own 90 percent of Chile's print media. El Mercurio is a conservative media company whose flagship newspaper played, as the CIA put it, “a significant role in setting the stage” for the 1973 coup that violently deposed democratically elected President Salvador Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Augustin Edwards Eastman, who owned El Mercurio until his death in 2017, personally lobbied the White House to intervene in Chile and became a chief CIA collaborator, running misinformation campaigns and then covering up the crimes of the Pinochet regime. El Mercurio owns the newspaper of the same name, as well as Las Ultimas Noticias, La Segunda, and 21 regional newspapers along with various radio stations.

Copesa, for its part, owns La Cuarta, La Hora, La Tercera, and popular magazines Que Pasa and Paula. The owner of Copesa, Alvaro Saieh, is the fourth richest man in Chile and 729th in the world, according to Forbes. He also owns Coprbanca, Coprgroup, supermarket Unimarc, and Hyatt Hotels. Saieh, an economist, is a former “Chicago Boy,” a member of the group of economists that engineered Chile’s harsh neoliberal economic model during the Pinochet regime. His interest in maintaining the current constitution for the benefit of his enormous business portfolio is palpable.

Coverage in traditional media outlets heavily skewed toward the right and with no alternative voices, presenting Rechazo publicists with an open goal. Their strategy focused on undermining the process and individuals. During the writing of the constitution, opponents increasingly questioned the competence of the elected body. Attacks targeted individual members of the Constitutional Convention, especially its Mapuche, feminist, and grassroots left-wing delegates. The abuse came in the form of Twitter storms targeting certain accounts and from members of the right-wing parties Chile Vamos, Evópoli, and the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), who used airtime and social media to spread anti-communist tropes.

Damage to the credibility of the constitutional process also came from within. One third of the members were hardline right-wingers, including Teresa Marinovic, a staunch anti-abortionist and president of ultra-conservative Nueva Mente Foundation, a neoliberal thinktank dedicated to spreading misinformation about the new constitution. Marinovic called her fellow members “parasites” and continually undermined the elected convention.

The fear mongering paid off. A survey by the Center for Journalistic Investigation (CIPER) reveals how many of the distortions propagated by the Rechazo campaign influenced public opinion. Among 120 survey respondents in 12 working-class neighborhoods of the Santiago area, leading reasons for rejecting the new constitution were concerns that their houses would be appropriated by the state, inheritance would be expropriated, plurinationality would divide the country, and pensions would be appropriated. The proposed constitution posed no such threats, and these fears represent the misinterpretation and deliberate manipulation of the draft’s contents.

Plurinationality and the Government’s Double Discourse

During the mass mobilizations of 2019, the Mapuche flag became a symbol of the fight for a fairer society. Mapuche rights, along with ecological rights and feminist demands, were high on the agenda for the Constitutional Convention, and the body’s first president was Mapuche academic Elisa Loncón. However, on the ground in Mapuche territory, the government continued to enact repressive measures with a basis in Pinochet-era anti-terror policies.

Boric’s administration entered office with promises to de-escalate military presence in Araucania, the region of southern Chile where Mapuche autonomists seeking to reclaim ancestral land have long clashed with forestry companies exploiting the land for profit. The government, however, did the opposite. When campaigning for the presidency, Boric said that the military route was not the way to achieve peace. Yet in May, he decreed a state of emergency in Araucania and neighboring Biobio and Arauco, triggering military deployment. And in late August, after the Senate extended the state of emergency, police arrested Mapuche leader Hector Llaitul, his son Ernesto, and other members of the radical autonomist Mapuche group Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM) using Pinochet-era anti-terror legislation. These actions provoked immediate reactions from prominent Mapuche leaders and communities, increasing distrust and causing immeasurable damage to the relationship between Mapuche groups and the new government.

“The Mapuche live under a police state—they apply anti-terror laws and the Security Law against us,” said Reynaldo Mariqueo of the Mapuche rights organization Mapuche International Link. “These same laws and repressive methods [were] used by the Pinochet dictatorship; Chilean ‘democracy’ continues to use these against the Mapuche Nation.”

The discourse of the Mapuche as terrorists was incorporated into the Rechazo campaign, which capitalized on racist populism and encouraged anti-plurinational sentiment. Rechazo slogans such as “Chile es uno solo” (Chile is one) and “We want peace” were direct references to the Mapuche struggle for autonomy and the troubles in Araucania. These narratives fomented the idea that “Chilean” rights would somehow be secondary to those of the Mapuche and other Indigenous groups under the new constitution. The neo-conservative thinktank Instituto Res Publica warned, for example, that giving Indigenous communities a say would hurt the economy. Araucania was the region with the second-highest level of support for Rechazo in the country at 73.69 percent.

An Emboldened Hardline Right

The overwhelming defeat of the Apruebo has galvanized the Right. Boric has replaced several cabinet members with figures from Chile’s traditional political class. The future seems very uncertain.

“Fearmongering was a key element for the Rechazo campaign, especially on issue like pensions, housing, and Indigenous people,” explained Jorge Saaverdra Utman, a lecturer in communications and media at Diego Portales University in Santiago.

But supporters of the new constitution also bear responsibility, he added. “A lack of unity and skill from the Left, who were unable to gauge the relevance of the moment and gave away opportunities to the opponents to discredit the process, was also key,” he said. “They did not understand that campaigning should have commenced immediately and should have informed people about what really was at stake.”

At present, the political panorama in Chile is very delicate, and it’s difficult to foresee how the Boric government will be able to reignite the support that it once enjoyed when promising sweeping social and political change.

Carole Concha Bell is an Anglo-Chilean writer and PhD student at King’s College London. She is a specialist on the Mapuche conflict and socio-political conflict in Latin America.

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