Chile’s Coup d'État as a Refoundational Project

Days after the bombing of La Moneda on September 11, 1973, the military junta set a priority that would define Chile’s trajectory for decades: drafting a new constitution.

September 10, 2023

General Augusto Pinochet greets Enrique Ortúzar, president of the commission that created the 1980 Constitution. (Memoria Chilena / Biblioteca Nacional de Chile)

This article was originally published in Spanish by CIPER.

On September 24, 1973, 13 days after the coup d'état, a Constituent Commission met for the first time convened by the military junta that had recently taken de facto power. The task of those present was to draw up a preliminary plan for a new constitution. The commission included Sergio Diez, Jaime Guzmán, Jorge Ovalle, Rafael Eyzaguirre, and Enrique Ortúzar—all conservative lawyers with experience in politics. Ortúzar was elected president of the commission—known to this day as the "Ortúzar Commission"—and Eyzaguirre acted as secretary.

Enrique Ortúzar was born in Santiago in 1914. He studied law at the Pontificia Catholic University of Chile and at the University of Chile, and during President Jorge Alessandri's term from1958 to1964 he served in four ministerial posts: secretary general of government, minister of the interior, minister of justice, and minister of foreign affairs. During the 1970 elections, he was one of the organizers of the "Independent Alessandrist Movement" that sought the reelection of the former president.

The early organization of this Constituent Commission, days after the coup, shows the evident interest of the regime in projecting a major transformation of Chile’s political system. Contrary to the expectations of some actors at the time who imagined the military intervention as something temporary, those who came to power sought from the beginning to remake the foundations of the republic.

Ortúzar's first words on that day in September 1973 showed precisely that motivation. He stated: "The spirit that animates the Government Junta is of a nationalist nature, and therefore it is necessary to strengthen the values of our democratic system through the integration of the citizenry and the participation of the people to achieve the development and progress of the community, avoiding the interference of foreign elements in conducting the destinies of the Homeland."

But what would this nationalist spirit translate into? Ortúzar himself clarified by highlighting some central elements that the new constitution should consider. His points are revealing of the fears held by the civilian-military elite that had assumed power. He argued that the new charter should:

  1. Be an anti-Marxist constitution that promoted "the establishment of a constitutional precept, similar to the one contemplated in the Charter of Federal Germany, which declares contrary to the constitution parties or movements that sustain Marxist ideas or doctrines." He added that it would be necessary to establish "the prohibition of persons professing such ideologies from holding elected office, sanctioning violators with removal from such office."
  2. Reform the presidential election system, including a second round system in presidential elections to prevent minority candidates from imposing upon the majority.
  3. Increase in the quorums for constitutional reform, establishing "a quorum of two thirds of the acting members of each branch of parliament to modify constitutional guarantees and those provisions of the Fundamental Charter that ensure the democratic regime and the rule of law."
  4. Include the need to "strengthen the property regime in general and, in particular, that of agriculture, industry, and mining, and to emphasize the corresponding social function that obliges [property] be used for its natural purpose and in harmony with the collective interest." He noted that the new constitution must ensure private initiative through enterprise as the great engine that drives development.
  5. Give effective participation to unions, professional associations, women, youth, and the armed forces by establishing an Economic and Social Council where they could participate. It is noteworthy that the armed forces were included as an intermediate group of society.
  6. Establish a Senate with a mixed composition, with members elected by popular vote and other authorities appointed by virtue of their prestige, including former presidents, former comptrollers, former rectors, and representatives of trade unions, among others.
  7. Regarding retirement of the high commanders of the Armed Forces, "to avoid arbitrary and hateful attitudes," this should be done with the agreement of the Senate. 
  8. Provide for states of emergency to not be issued by the political authority, but in consultation with the Armed Forces "or only by the latter."

Commissioner Diez presented a series of proposals associated with the formulation of the law and political parties. He argued for the need to give the Armed Forces special powers, such as being in charge of "the management and enforcement of restrictions on public freedoms; the electoral apparatus of the nation, and the possibility that at a given time, in response to circumstances of national security that must be carefully specified, they could act on the rectification of certain acts emanating from the authorities without being subject to the subordination owed to the executive."

Beginning on September 25, this Constituent Commission not only discussed ideas for a draft new constitution, but also proposed decrees of laws to be submitted to the military junta. On that day, they proposed decrees to dissolve and declare unlawful any parties or groups that supported the Marxist doctrine, to declare political parties in recess, and to suspend the inscription process in electoral registries. 

The following day, the commission unanimously approved a draft that defined the fundamental goals for the new constitution: it would be a nationalist constitution that would promote the stability of the democratic regime by prohibiting parties of Marxist ideology; it would strengthen the right to property; seek to stimulate the participation of the Armed Forces, unions, youth, and women in the country’s political life; establish the basis for economic development centered on legal security and private initiative; strengthen the independence of the judiciary and the comptroller's office; promote regional decentralization; establish rules for the Armed Forces and the national police to ensure their broadest participation in national affairs; and promote respect for the legal order, paying attention to the definition of special quorums.

Many of the ideas put forward in the early days of the commission were ultimately embodied in the 1980 Constitution. Unlike so many other provisional military interventions that had taken place in Chile and Latin America, this coup sought from day one to forge a nationalist and anti-Marxist institutional project that would strengthen the free market and private property and that aspired to grant a new role to the Armed Forces. This refoundational spirit made the drafting of a new constitution for Chile one of its priorities.

Claudio Fuentes S. has a PhD in Political Science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is a professor in the School of Political Science at the Universidad Diego Portales and an associate researcher at the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Studies (CIIR).

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