Publisher’s note: Jorge G. Castañeda is a contributor to CNN. He was Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico from 2000 to 2003. He is currently a professor at New York University and his most recent book, “America Through Foreign Eyes,” was published by Oxford UniversityPress in 2020. The opinions expressed in this comment are solely of the author. You can find more opinion pieces at CNNe.com/opinion.
(CNN Spanish) — More than a month after the inauguration of the new president of Chile, the complications of the current Chilean situation are added to the inevitable difficulties faced by any incipient government. Not only is Gabriel Boric a young president, without administrative experience, but full of enthusiasm, freshness and innovation, but he must deal with the simultaneity of a Constituent Convention, elected before him and with a broad mandate.
The drafting assembly of a new constitution must finish its work on July 4, then go through a two-month period of “harmonization” work, to finally submit the result of its deliberations to a referendum on September 4. Although both Boric and the Constituent Assembly are direct emanations of the protests and mobilizations of October and November 2019, today they seem to be walking on divergent paths, if not opposed, in my opinion. Boric will be able to correct without much difficulty the logical setbacks in the start of his government, such as some unfortunate statements by his Interior Minister, the Constituent Assembly may already find itself prey to a suicidal dynamic.
According to recent information, the Constituent Assembly could face two serious dangers. The first is that it produces a contradictory, radical, strident text that leads to a situation of ungovernability. The second is that for the same reason, but above all, due to a formation located further to the left than the Chilean electorate as a whole, it could be rejected by voters in September.
Certainly, the final result is not yet clearly distinguished. More than 1,200 proposals were submitted, both from civil society and constituents. First they had to be voted on in the seven commissions defined by the assembly itself; if they are approved there, they must go to the plenary discussion. If they are not approved, they are returned to the commissions for the changes that are required; Finally, those responsible for “harmonization” can make changes, although in principle not content. But, as I see it, the first warning signs have already begun to appear.
Former President Ricardo Lagos, signer of the reformed Constitution in 2005, declared a few days ago that “I have no doubt that there must be a change (in the constituent body). (…) It is essential, because otherwise I am afraid that we could have a very inadequate Constitution”. He was referring, first of all, to the changes to the political system, to plurinationality and to the modifications to the Judiciary. It seems that Lagos remains optimistic – things can turn out well, he says – but the elimination of the Senate and its replacement by an asymmetrical Territorial Chamber, the creation of a Council of Justice and the definition of Chile as a plurinational republic worry him greatly. . I would add to the list of concerns the creation of a justice system for indigenous peoples – the so-called judicial pluralism, possibly on an equal footing with that of the rest of the country – and the temptation to nationalize copper, lithium, water and forests (at least partially). If to this is added a series of environmental, labor, international treaty considerations and restrictions on the operation of national and foreign private companies, I believe that there is a danger that the new Chilean Magna Carta governs a country that is very difficult to administer, or even rule. The votes in the plenary session of the Environment Committee are lacking –which in my opinion is the most radical– and a “sensible blocking third” has been taking shape in the Convention as a whole, but the tendency towards extremes may be irresistible. This week’s vote on the political regime will show how far the most transformative voices in the Convention reach.
The second risk is that because of that same radical nature, but also because of the feeling of disorder, chaos, disorganization and strident positions, people vote to reject the Constitution on September 4. Of four polls in recent days, three give the victory to the “Rejection”; only one, and by a few points, to “Approve”. Cadem’s is revealing. The percentage of Chileans who would vote against the new Constitution goes from 36% to 46% in one week; those who approve it drop six percentage points. The “little or no trust” also rises and for example, by more than three to one, Chileans prefer a multicultural republic to a multinational one. The substantive differences between one and the other are not necessarily enormous or obvious. However, there is a significant challenge facing approval.
If the large minorities of a conservative society that voted 44% for a far-right presidential candidate in December accumulate, without overlapping each other, the result could be disastrous. If the Chileans who oppose the State’s obligation to guarantee the right to abortion, a plurinational republic, an exclusively state pension system, a de facto unicameral Legislative Power, without being the same, unite in their opposition to proposed text, it may lose the support of the majority of Chileans. Adding minority monothematic oppositions due to the stridency of certain proposals of great importance for some, but which could be lacking in that meaning for the majority, can end up constituting a defeat strategy.
The problem for the brand new Government of Boric, of which in theory the Constituent Assembly is autonomous, consists in the political reality of the country. The Convention will be dissolved, in principle, on July 4 at the end of its work. The campaign for “Approbation” will inevitably remain in the hands of the Government and the coalition of parties that comprise it. Both will have to assume the set of definitions included in the text submitted to the electorate, even if they have not participated directly in its preparation. If Boric does not agree with the resulting text, he could not disassociate himself from a project elaborated by his sympathizers or co-religionists. A win for “Approval” would represent a success for Boric, but a win for “Rejection” would be a loss for him. There is no way to avoid this diabolical dilemma.
It would be a shame if a proposal as encouraging as that of the new Chilean president were derailed by a reckless experiment, although understandable. Faced with the pressure of a huge social protest in 2019, the entire Chilean political class opted for the exit of a new Constitution. It didn’t seem like a bad idea then. Unfortunately, it may turn out to be.