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Chile: long path towards a democratic constitution

Lessons learned from the Chilean social movements

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Chile’s constituent process, led by the consistent work of the country’s social movements, seeks to dismantle the first laboratory of neoliberal capitalism and offers lessons to the left in the UK and worldwide.


On the eve of Sunday 16 May, the results of Chile’s recent election brought joy to the streets of this long, narrow country. The results surprised the pollsters and marked both a continuation of support for the democratic processes set in motion by the estallido social of October 2019, and continued resistance to neoliberalism. They also showed a consistent rejection of the oficialismo both of the right-wing alliance Chile Vamos, led by President Piñera, and of the Concertación – the old, neoliberal-embracing centre-left that ruled the country from the end of the dictatorship in 1990.

This recent election was called in order to select mayors, councillors, and two new forms of representation – regional governors and delegates for a new constituent assembly, a political process which emerged directly out of strong demands during the 2019 mass protests to change the 1980 constitution which had been imposed by Augusto Pinochet; an inheritance from the dictatorship. 

The estallido, a sustained outburst of mass mobilisations, triggered by high-school students protesting a 3% increase in metro fares in Santiago de Chile, turned into the largest nationwide uprising Chile has seen since the return to democracy in the early 1990s. One month after protests began, a referendum for a new constitution was agreed. When Chileans finally voted on 25 October 2020, an overwhelming 78% opted to rewrite the Constitution and 79% opted for a completely newly elected Constitutional Convention to do the job – with gender parity and set quotas for Indigenous delegates.

One of the victorious candidates in the Constituent Assembly elections, Alondra Carrillo, is the former spokesperson of the Coordinadora Feminista 8M, a national coordinating body of feminist collectives. Alondra reflected on the victory of leftist candidates from social movements and progressive forces:

This was not a surprise for us’, she said, ‘We knew this would happen because we have been fighting for years to build a plurinational feminism, fighting for a life worth living. It has been decades of struggle and of quietly building grassroots political organisation.

During the estallido social, ‘Fighting for a life worth living’ became a catchphrase of social discontent against ever-growing inequality in Chile, an inescapable byproduct of the country’s national neoliberal democratic model. This model dates back to the free-market economic policies of the so-called Chicago Boys during the Pinochet dictatorship, that were then continued under the guise of democratic legitimacy by both centre-left and right-wing governments elected since the 1990s. 

However, the recent election of 155 delegates to write the new constitution has been a blow to a delegitimised political class, with resounding victories for left and independent candidates, and with the government alliance failing to reach the one third tally of delegate seats – which they would need to significantly influence the shaping of the new constitution. Sebastián Piñera, the Chilean president with the lowest ever approval on polls, admitted after the devastating results for those politically right-wing, that his government and the traditional parties are ‘not in tune with the demands and the hopes of the Chilean people’.

The Apruebo Dignidad list (I support – Dignity), a left-wing alliance that included the Frente Amplio and the Chilean Communist Party, gained 27 delegates, and the resulting election of an astounding 65 non-party affiliated, independent candidates, confirms an overwhelming support for a break from the traditional political alternatives. Machi Francisca Linconao, the most voted delegate amongst the 17 indigenous people’s list – and also a victim of criminalisation by the Chilean state – said,

‘In this new constitution, we (the Mapuche) must be recognised as a people, and we must leave behind any type of discrimination […]. We must return dignity to indigenous peoples.’

This constituent process, which seeks to dismantle the first laboratory of neoliberal capitalism, offers lessons to the left in the UK and worldwide. 

Machi [Mapuche spiritual leader] Francisca Linconao, is asked how she will advocate for defending Mapuche rights in the constitution. Her demands will include the return of land and water to the Wallmapu community, respect of Mapuche natural medicines, timely medical attention, quality interpreters between Mapuzungun and Castilian in municipalities and political affairs and Mapuche teachers in schools.

Social movements in Chile have developed their own specific response to this neoliberal straitjacket. They took off with the active Chilean student movement which began in the early 2000s, and the feminist movement which has been in action at least since 2018. Authoritarian responses of governments merely spurred further and broader mobilisations. Examples of these have been the high school occupations of 2006, territorial assemblies in 2011 to articulate free education as a social demand, feminist university campus occupations in 2018, national strikes for International Women’s Day and self-organised cabildos (local assemblies) from the 2019 nationwide uprising onwards. 

These movements have created spaces where new ways of doing politics – of being-in-common, of direct democracy and engaging with alternative forms of organisational power – are envisioned, practiced, and reoriented. And, in turn, it is these new forms of politics and popular democracy that have become central to the increasing strength of social movements in Chile over the last two decades.

The politics of the commons

The idea of ‘the politics of the commons’, centred around everyday life and popular democracy, has shaped and strengthened the resistance to a reformed, post-Pinochet version of neoliberalism, which, up until the estallido, had been viewed by some as the template for the Third Way neoliberalism of Tony Blair’s New Labour and similar projects in other countries. 

Critics of this ‘politics of everyday life’ suggest it is limited in its political scope. Yet two decades of social movements’ struggles in Chile – a country regarded as the first laboratory of neoliberalism – have asserted the idea that these kinds of politics are key for the political reconstruction of the left. The politics of the commons resonates with struggles led by new municipalist movements elsewhere to reclaim the belief that ‘democracy was born at the local level, and that’s where we can win it back’.

The wave of self-organised cabildos that followed the social uprising of October 2019, are perfect examples of popular democracy, which emerged organically and can be replicated in other contexts. They became spaces in which everyday people met and debated about demands on issues such as housing, health, education, pensions, climate change and a new constitution. These cabildos became spaces where different struggles found proximity and a common cause, to question what so many economists had hailed as ‘the Chilean (neoliberal) miracle’. 

Local assemblies organise in various neighbourhoods of Santiago following the estallido social.

This does not, however, mean disregarding the role of traditional politics. Rather, traditional politics matters inasmuch as they connect and reflect with grassroots demands. Working together for a politics that enshrines the right to a ‘life worth living’ requires us to work, as the Zapatistas say, ‘together, but not mixed’.

Proof of this is the solid work that has been done by representatives of these movements to win control of historically conservative mayoralties and councils. The mayoral elections saw one of the most iconic wins for the Communist Party: Santiago City centre, the heart of the metropolitan region, was won for the first time with Irací Hassler as the new mayor. The Frente Amplio – one of the main left-wing alliances – also won 11 mayoralties. This work was also echoed in the regional governors elections. After the second round of elections, which took place on 13 June, the government’s right wing alliance only managed to win one of 16 seats, in the region of the Araucanía.

The recent success of grassroots politicians may also attest to the resilience of Chile’s social movements in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. Social movements managed to adapt and continue actively fighting the precariousness of life which the pandemic only exacerbated. Whilst the Chilean government’s response to the pandemic has been a mixture of authoritarian measures against social unrest alongside genuine safety measures; communities, neighbours and other collectives have continued building together through collective care.

One of the key forms of community support has been the organisation soup kitchens – or ollas communes – which have a long history in Chilean grassroots organising, first emerging during the 1980s in the poorest neighbours hit by the economic crisis. These ollas comunes have been brought back throughout the country to help thousands of families abandoned to poverty due to the Coronavirus crisis and its economic impact. 

The potential to transform politics

Last Sunday 16 May, the election of a large number of independent delegates from the grassroots for the constituent assembly – including indigenous people, feminists, ex-student leaders and leaders from other social movements – showed the potential of popular democracy to transform politics. None of the independent delegates have affiliation to political parties. While the traditional political class suffers a self-inflicted crisis of legitimacy, this represents a wider victory of social movements and activists to intervene in the constituent process. 

Of course this movement was not built in two months, or in two years. It has been built gradually and steadily with the increase of on-the-ground organisation and public discontent with a system that is not working for most people in Chile. As many said after October 2019, it was not about a 30 pesos raise of the metro fare, it was 30 years of ‘democratic’ neoliberalism.

How popular democracy will continue to nurture alternative forms of political power whilst fighting and negotiating for a new constitution remains an open question. But it offers hope for new political horizons that could make Chile not just the country where neoliberalism was born, but where it will die. 


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