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Mile End Institute

Decoding the Chilean Plebiscite – Dr Javier Sajuria

A ballot box painted into national flag colours of Chile.

Image of a ballot box painted into national flag colours of Chile.

On October 25, 2020, more than seven million Chileans voted on whether to draft a Constitution to replace the one established during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, and the mechanism in which to do so. With 77% and 78% respectively, the decision was that a new text should be drafted by a fully elected assembly.

The plebiscite is one more step in a process that began decades ago, with groups that have tried, in one way or another, to modify Pinochet's constitutional legacy. Thus, in recent years, we have seen examples such as the "Mark your vote" campaign in the 2013 elections, in which 10% of voters wrote "AC" on their ballots to indicate their preference for the creation of a Constituent Assembly (which is the equivalent of the approved Constitutional Convention). Later, during her second term, Michelle Bachelet achieved the participation of more than 200,000 people in town councils and discussions within the process of Encuentros Locales Autoconvocados (self-arranged local meetings), in which regular citizens discussed their aspirations for a new Constitution. The result was a draft constitutional text presented in the last days of the Bachelet’s government, and then quickly discarded by the new government of Sebastián Piñera.

But the trigger for this entire process was the protests that began on October 18, 2019, against the rise in the cost of public transport in Santiago, which quickly called into question the growing social inequality occurring in Chile. After a month of uninterrupted protests and with the military in the streets, the political elite proposed an institutional solution consisting of a plebiscite and a potential new Constitution.

A broad coalition for a new Constitution 

One of the most surprising aspects of the result was the magnitude of the vote share obtained by the options in favour of a new Constitution and the establishment of a completely elected constitutional convention for this purpose. Both options succeeded in attracting voters beyond the more progressive or (centre)left sectors. According to data from Cadem, a polling company that conducted an online survey between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on election day, behind the approval for a new constitution there were sectors of the opposition, independents, and up to a third of those who identify with the right. Although there was a generational bias, the "Approve" option won in all age groups, as well as in the different income levels. The option for a new constitution also had a majority amongst evangelicals, a group that is associated with more conservative positions and that was in the spotlight after several of its most visible leaders came out to campaign for the “Reject” option.

The overwhelming triumph of the "Approve" is, at the same time, the greatest challenge for those who want to channel it into an effective mobilization during the constituent process. In unprecedented fashion, the coalition of voters behind the new Constitution is the widest in the history of Chile. This leads to the traditional methods of 21st-century politics, which appeal either to the excessive differentiation of audiences or to the exercise of dichotomizing society between "them" and "us", fall short. It is almost as if the "chain of equivalences" on which Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's theories of left-wing populism are based, are now being asked to represent electorates that go beyond progressive or oppressed sectors.

Many of the analyses show how "Reject" managed to win in the three wealthiest municipalities of the country, which are located in the northeast corner of Santiago. However, there are two aspects that do not allow a clear inference using aggregated data to predict individual behaviour. On the one hand, two of these three communes had a distribution closer to 50% between both options, while in the 2017 presidential election Piñera reached 75% there. Notwithstanding a possible ecological fallacy, this is consistent with the results of the polls and shows that even within the elite - and the classic electorate of the Right - there is a segment that is convinced of the need for constitutional change.

The second element to consider is that the magnitude of the defeat of the "Reject" option obscures the fact that it had a heterogeneous representation in different areas of the country, which also raises doubts about the territorial distribution of the supporters and how they would behave in an eventual election to the constitutional convention. Strictly speaking, it is important to understand that the defeat of the right-wing is not so much because it has diminished, but because it is now divided. And it can be reassembled easily enough for electoral purposes.

Polarisation or isolation 

Now, this difference between the richest sectors of the country and the rest should not be ignored. As stated above, the difference has been reflected in electoral results virtually since the return to democracy. Without going any further, while 56% of the population in Chile voted to end the dictatorship in 1988, the former 23rd district, made up of the same above-mentioned municipalities (Vitacura, Las Condes, and Lo Barnechea) showed a 59% preference for the permanence of the dictator in power for another eight years. In Chile, both electorally and socially, the elite has been against the grain of the rest of the population.

In recent years, analysts have emphasized the existence of growing political polarization in Chile. For this purpose, they usually use the debates of political elites, discussions on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or what can be observed by the media as a reference. However, each time we collect survey data or use other systematic research methods, the results are less clear. That is why it is possible to argue that what Chile is experiencing today is a triple phenomenon: (a) a polarization of the elites; (b) their isolation from the masses; and (c) the (re)politicization of citizens.

Let's start from polarization. The studies of Jorge Fábrega, Jorge González and Jaime Lindh ( 2018, 2019 ) have shown an emptying of the political centre, which could be consistent with a thesis in favour of polarization. However, the authors also show how this is due to the fact that a large part of the Chilean electorate has stopped identifying with traditional political forces. In other words, it is a crisis of political identity rather than polarization. This is consistent with the work of Carlos Meléndez and Cristóbal Rovira (2019) on negative political identity formations, where they show that today it is more efficient to understand political identity in terms of opposition to certain parties than of support for others.

But where there is polarization, it is at the elite level. In an analysis done in 2017 together with Jorge Fábrega, we pointed out that the Senate at that time showed a clear distinction between those who looked to the right and those who did so to the left. Later, in a similar work, but related to the Constitutional Court, we find that this counter-majoritarian body followed the same path as other political bodies, assuming a role that is increasingly polarized and consistent with the political preferences of the elites that are behind their appointments.

These results, along with surveys showing that citizens are exhausted of politicians fighting, are another symptom of the lack of connection between elites and voters, specifically, in that some are more polarized than the others. If we take the results of the plebiscite as a reference, we will see that in some of these areas where the elite is concentrated - such as Las Condes or even the most central neighbourhood of Providencia - the preferences were more adjusted than in the rest of the country. Where there is an agreement in the vast majority of the territory, it becomes a disagreement in those areas where wealth and power are concentrated.

This same symptom reflects the potential isolation of these sectors. At the level of political parties, we see a similar pattern, with increasing uprooting from the people. In an analysis written a few days after the October 2019 social uprising, I reflected on how the socioeconomic origin of those who held the seats in Parliament was radically different from the rest of the population. Chilean elites not only differ in terms of income but also have different educational and health systems. The plebiscite has confirmed that they have also sheltered themselves in the Santiago foothills and built their own physical and geographical isolation from the rest of Chilean society.

Finally, in an effort to reduce levels of conflict, some have confused the (re)politicization of citizenship with polarization. One of the most famous television series in the country, called Los 80, portrays the life of a working-class family during the dictatorship. In the middle of a discussion about the political situation of the country over dinner, the patriarch of the family bangs the table and dictates: “When the shit hits the fan, is people like us the ones who pay the price. Those at the top, the generals, the politicians, they never lose. Either they stay in power or they are the first to jump out. And people like us are the ones who stay, the ones who have to keep working to keep living. This is the way it is, and it will always be that way.” This dialogue was probably repeated in many Chilean homes during the dictatorship and remained a common phrase during the transition years. This phrase also represents the triumph of a doctrine called gremialismo, imposed by the dictatorship, which consisted of a depoliticization of citizens and a discrediting of the work of political parties.


The plebiscite in 1988 to end the dictatorship mobilized unsuspected numbers of voters, but this quickly gave way to an accommodation between representatives that kept citizens' intentions to participate at bay through the creation of apparent political stability. Kathya Araujo's book Inhabiting the social. Uses and abuses in daily life in Chile today (2009), as well as one of her most recent articles, are fundamental to understand how relationships between individuals, norms, and political actors are configured in Chile. Her analysis shows that there has been, in Chilean society, a loss of the sense of “the public”, and the configuration of what she calls an "archipelago" or the conformation of diverse audiences. This also raises questions about the formation of transactional relationships between society and political actors. Juan Pablo Luna, for his part, translates this conflict as a lack of mediation between political parties and individuals, which has created a void of meaning and power.

Thus, an important part of the hegemonic political discourse in Chile is based on the notion that there is stability and, therefore, the politicization and collectivization of citizens are not desirable. It is for this reason, in my opinion, that the reaction from the mainstream media and columnists is one of surprise and confusion because citizens - by taking a massive interest in public issues such as the Constitution to the detriment of other more routine issues such as crime – are engaging in a process of (re)politicization and not polarization.

Electoral participation and covid-19 

A final element to discuss when looking at the results of the plebiscite is turnout. Here there are different stories depending on the data involved in the comparison, so it is important to clarify some issues. First, Chile is, compared to the rest of the region, a country with historically low turnout. Even in the times of compulsory electoral participation, there was a significant drop in registrations, mainly among younger generations.

Second, most comparisons on turnout levels in Chile use different baselines, and thus, are not really useful. On the day after the plebiscite, a graph produced by the office in Chile of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) showed that in 2013, after the introduction of the voluntary vote, turnout appeared to decrease from 87% to 47%. However, this comparison is problematic: firstly, it compares the number of voters over the number of registered adults in the Electoral Register, ignoring that before 2012 registration was voluntary. Secondly, it does not consider decreasing inscription in those registries. Thus, Patricio Navia (2004) re-estimates these rates from 1988 to 2001, using the voting age population (VAP) as a baseline. In his work, he shows that by 2001 electoral participation in Chile was around 58%.

The central point is that turnout in Chile is low. Even in attractive elections, such as the presidential run-off in 2017, it increased only to 49%. That is why the turnout of the plebiscite, close to 51%, needs to be analysed taking into account this historical downward trend. This trend is, at the same time, consistent with the idea raised earlier about the depoliticization (or detachment) of citizenship.

Another factor to consider is the role that the COVID-19 pandemic had in different municipalities across the country. According to government guidelines, about 10% of the communes were in the lockdown during the process. Although the government decided to temporarily lift the restrictions on voting day, we still do not know how the experiences and ravages of Covid-19 can affect individual decisions about turnout.

The last element to consider is that the polls consistently showed that people who were inclined to vote " Reject" were, at the same time, those who were least likely to vote. One plausible explanation is that nobody likes to vote for a losing option. Thus, a counterfactual is that had the race been more competitive, turnout could have been higher.

What’s Next? 

Analysts have mentioned that the constitutional process will bring, at least, two years of economic and political uncertainty. However, that usually ignores the fact that the next steps are largely regulated. In April 2021, the 155 members of the Constitutional Convention will be elected by vote. What is pending is whether Congress will establish reserved quotas for indigenous peoples or if it will make it easier for independents to participate as candidates.

The convention will meet from May 2021 to May 2022 and must reach a final text that will be approved or rejected in a subsequent plebiscite. This election, set for mid-2022, will use compulsory voting, which will allow us to really know how preferences operate when they are not conditioned by their own attendance at the polls.

The process that comes to Chile is complex but orderly. It will be important to know how the political actors account for the repoliticization of the citizenry. If during the constituent process they do not contemplate participation and intermediation mechanisms, the political crisis will only have been postponed, and not resolved.

This piece was originally published in Spanish by

Dr Javier Sajuria is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary University of London.




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