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In October 2019 there was an outburst of enormous magnitude, a mixture of social demands and violence, where churches, Metro stations, transport buses and shops were destroyed. Not only that, but it had support, appreciation and validation in the media and political groups, with tributes that brought the Congress to the front line of the barricades. Even in courts, since clandestine torture centers were invented.
The Government did not know how to react, and the police was overwhelmed. The collapse of public order led to a negotiation and an unexpected political solution, a Convention proposing a new Constitution for Chile, the culmination of which was the plebiscite of September 4, where almost 62% (61.87%) of the voters rejected the proposal.
This result was a great surprise, the polls had predicted a triumph of the rejection, but such a notorious difference was not anticipated by anyone. Despite intervention of the government, approval was only 38.13%.
However, equally, or even more surprising is what has happened next, where for a good number of politicians and media this result apparently did not take place, and they continue to act as if none of this had happened, so the great mystery is what happened with such a clear and forceful vote.
The question arises, what is happening with the political class that does not pay attention to what happened and if they believe in the disappearance of that 62% of the vote? The impression they give is that many want to repeat the failed Convention.
Besides, in the first place, the Government was defeated since it played entirely for the proposal and actively intervened for that purpose. Today, it is acting as if that plebiscite had never taken place, as if there was still no result.
Secondly, for the future the ruling parties proposed something very close to what was defeated, that is, from 100 to 125 elected members for a new Convention, 9 reserved seats, parity between men and women, 25 to 30 members appointed by the parties, arguing that the rejection was “only” to a proposal, thus keeping the constitutional issue open.
In the third place, important sectors of the two groups that governed the last 30 years (the Social Democratic Coalition and the center right) appear full of doubts and ready to accept a smaller version of what was defeated on September 4, on the basis that “borderlines” or limitations were incorporated into what could be done, to avoid refoundation maximalism and the excesses of the defeated convention. Yes, an important part of the right as well. My impression is that there was a negotiation where both sides expected the victory of the rejection that day, but not the magnitude of the final vote. Perhaps, they had reached a previous agreement with Boric’s government, in case that scenario were to occur.
October 2019 paved the way for the acceptance of violence, and it is very difficult for any society to return to normality, since democracy is, above all, the peaceful resolution of the conflict. In Chile, the previous experience with political violence was that it lasted for almost three decades. It appeared with the polarization of the late 1960s, reached a terrible level with the deaths and disappearances during the military dictatorship, and could only be overcome in the transition to democracy in the 1990s.
In Chile, the term “octubrismo” emerged to describe what arose in 2019, including the idealization of violence, which was even present in WhatsApp groups of friends and/or relatives, leading some to self-censorship. Chile gained nothing from the revolt, only setbacks for the country, in addition to greater poverty, uncertainty and lack of opportunities for the people. In addition to violence, there was also a generalized loss of respect for the rules, all of them. This remained and did not go away.
Equally bad seems to be the fact that octubrismo still hangs in the air, since part of the political class maintains the refoundation spirit, in spite of the clear vote and verdict of the plebiscite. Also the intimidation of democrats. Nobody saw the violence of October 2019 coming, just as nobody saw that 62% coming. It is understandable that they want to solve the constitutional issue, but it is unacceptable that they do not want to start respecting what the people decided as sovereign.
That is the starting point to which everything else must be subordinated, and it is supported by democracy, republican institutionality, the law and the current constitution, the one signed in 2005 by former socialist president Ricardo Lagos.
To ignore that 62% who, with their vote, gave Chile a more profitable path than approval, is a distortion of democracy, called partydocracy, that is to say, that the party directives would be above the citizen vote. The problem was created by the Chileans themselves who rehabilitated themselves with that unexpected 62%. That is, the rules for moving forward already exist. And they are clear.
The golden principle of democracy is that if the election is legitimate, the will of the voters must be respected. In this regard, it can be compared to when Colombia (2-10-2016) and the United Kingdom (24-06-2016) called for a plebiscite.
Colombia, for the Peace agreement of President Santos with the FARC guerrilla and the United Kingdom for its exit from Europe. In Colombia, Santos’ proposal was defeated, but went ahead anyway, while, in London, although the difference had been small, the contrary verdict of the ballot boxes was accepted by supporters and detractors, and there was total respect for the mandate received, even if it was not liked.
In Chile, the political class seems not to have understood the message, even though the rules of the game said that, if the constitutional proposal was rejected, the country would continue to be governed by the current law and constitution, which provide that any future constitutional reform has to go through the National Congress, democratically and recently elected. Any alternative needs to previously reform the constitution, in a similar way to what has just definitely culminated on September 4. Not only was the proposed content rejected, but there was also a rejection of the Convention itself; form and substance.
Chile did not know how to take advantage of a great opportunity, but that window has already closed. What cannot be done is to follow the path of Evo Morales and Maduro, that is to say, to repeat the rejected experiences until they are won, which is contrary to the very idea of democracy.
After the violence, in November 2019 and as part of a political agreement, a constitutional window was opened, where the National Congress temporarily surrendered its constitutional powers, which are now returned to them in full. This plebiscite should be respected by all those engaged in politics.
The outbreak set the country back, years have been lost and the causes of the crisis have not been solved. Moreover, the country’s intelligentsia is in debt, since a good explanation and a quality and sufficiently deep reflection on both the violence and the vote has not yet appeared.
There should be no doubt about the convenience and need of following the rules, accepting that the constitutional power lies in the Congress, which must comply with its duty, since the constitutional issue is still pending, there is nothing to prevent it from being resolved, through plebiscites, both at the beginning and at the end of the reforms that arise there.
Three years ago, in October 2019, there was a desire to dynamite all kinds of rules. These groups failed, so it would be absurd to return to the cycle of agitation and uncertainty. That 62 % already resolved basic issues for all, such as that Chile is a single nation that allows and wants multiculturalism within it through the constitutional recognition of its native peoples, but not a plurinationality that divides to the point of making the country unviable. The starting point is always the total respect for the will of that 62%.
We don’t know everything that happened in 2019 and perhaps a constitutional accusation against former President Pinera would have been necessary, but that possibility no longer exists. What corresponds is to look forward, respect democracy and Congress, submitting constitutional reforms to plebiscites, without a Convention and without a refoundation.
Chilean “exceptionality” in the region is not true. There is not and should not be any moral superiority or arrogance. If there is a lot of humility in respecting democratic norms and republican institutionality in order to concentrate on the fundamentals, every comparison shows us that if there is something difficult it is to write a good constitution, for which it is necessary to understand that the best ones are the shortest ones, those that are written with an eraser instead of a pencil.
This article is part of an agreement between El American and the Interamerican Institute for Democracy.
Ricardo Israel es un reconocido escritor, bogado, analista político y académico chileno. Fue candidato presidencial de su país en 2013. Actualmente hace parte del directorio del Interamerican Institute for Democracy // Ricardo Israel is a renowned Chilean writer, lawyer, political analyst and academic. He was a presidential candidate in his country in 2013. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy