Giving power to the people: Chile’s constitutional reform
Share this on

Giving power to the people: Chile’s constitutional reform

Spirits of change run high in Chile as the government tries to carry out one of the most progressive agenda in the country’s recent history.

Laws and structural reforms such as legalizing abortion, gay marriage and marijuana are just some recent examples of how Chilean society is drastically changing much of its values and world vision, overthrowing the extremely authoritarian and conservative social paradigm that once existed.

But the most important change of all is yet to come as President Bachelet announced this past October how next year’s constitutional reform will play out. As she pointed out, “Chile needs a new and improved constitution, created in democracy that expresses the will of the people. A legitimate and respected one, that will become the motor of national unity. This is what citizens have been demanding and it is one of the reasons why I was elected.”

Time for change

The constitutional reform is an eight step process that will also include a stage of civic education and civic discussion. This stage will be supervised by a council of designated observers that are supposed to be the most faithful representation of civil society. The discussions will be summed up in a document that will be sent to the executive for revision and the resulting bill will be sent into parliament in 2017. In addition to this, changes to the old constitution must be made in order to put into effect the process that will abolish it, one that is still not clear.

The main criticism of the reformed 1980’s constitution is that it lacks legitimacy in a democratic Chile due to the fact that it was created during the General Augusto Pinochet dictatorship by a designated commission of regime supporters. It drastically limits the role of the State, leaving the health, pension and educational systems at the mercy of the free market. But not only that, it also harbours traditional, conservative and catholic values that limit, to an extent, civil liberties such as the right to abort for example (let’s not forget that Chile is one of the five countries in the world where abortion, under any circumstances, is still illegal).

The reform has received several objections, especially in what concerns the Observers Council, its constitution and how it will be participating in the public debates.

On top of all the questioning that it currently faces, in Chile, such an endeavor is also challenged by a citizenship that has practically no civic education – due to the fact that it was banned from school curriculums in 1997 – and institutions that are still entrenched with an authoritarian ethos, like the binominal system, or the Constitution itself. As Jaime Guzmán – the ideologist behind it – once said:

“If the adversaries govern, they will see themselves compelled to act in a manner not so different from that which one would aspire, because – pardon the metaphor – the margin of alternatives that the field imposes on those who play in it, is sufficiently reduced that it would be extremely difficult to do the opposite.”

So how do we make a constitutional debate a truly open, public and civil debate? And is a constitutional dictionary actually all that it takes to educate the people?

We’ll have to face many challenges before we can consider ourselves a country with a robust, liberal and pluralist democratic system. The notion of democracy – and all the mechanisms and institutions it involves – is still an obscure and unknown realm for chileans today, but this is a scenario that might change after 2016.

See more:

Chilean Congress approves same-sex civil unions

Chile removes marijuana from hard drugs list