An unexpected landslide in Chile: 78.27% versus 21.73%

By Enzo Nervi

The two parts of the ballot for the Chilean constitutional plebiscite: first, whether there should be a new constitution and, if so, what form the process should take. (Photo courtesy of Janet Waggaman.)

Despite the expected triumph of approving replacing Chile’s constitution, everyone was surprised by the overwhelming margin of victory: 78.27% voted “approve,” to proceed with the process, against 21.73% who voted to “reject” an attempt. It was to be expected that many would jump on the victory bandwagon to align themselves with the majority and not lose their political capital. Such was the case with President Sebastián Piñera, who, despite not revealing if he voted to approve or reject — referring to his vote as “a bedroom secret” — mentioned that “this is a triumph for all Chileans who love democracy, unity, and peace.”

Simultaneously with the approve option’s victory, the last survey by Plaza Pública Cadem, released a day after the plebiscite, revealed that Piñera’s disapproval rate reached 78 percent. Immediately after the results, in a speech from Palacio de la Moneda, Piñera not only denied being part of the problem that led to the plebiscite and to the start of the protests last October, but also proclaimed, “Today is the time to heal the wounds of the past, to unite hearts and wills, and to look forward to the future.” Between the lines, the president was dismissing his responsibility for the human rights violations perpetrated by the state against the protesters, even when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, concluded that “there are well-founded reasons to believe” that a high number of human rights violations have been committed by the police and the military in Chile since October 18.

Despite the president’s positive words, his disconnect from the majority of citizens is evident. Discussions of a deep polarization in Chilean society for and against the old system no longer have a place, and Piñera’s well-remembered phrase, “We are at war against a powerful enemy,” uttered during the protests exactly one year ago, seems increasingly remote from reality. The overwhelming result of the plebiscite showed that Chileans are not divided or polarized, but that they had not had a real opportunity to achieve change since the return of democracy. The fact that only 21.73% of the population voted to reject writing a new constitution shows that those who want to maintain the model inherited from the dictatorship are a minority. The disconnect between the president and the citizens was also reflected in the attitude of the elites, giving rise to the hypothesis that their stance was more than simple disconnection; it was a desire to cling to power for their personal interests. As a surprise to some, but revealingly for others, three of the four districts in Chile where “reject” prevailed are the richest in the country. “The street,” as we popularly refer to the people who go out to protest, has interpreted the localized results of the rejection in the wealthiest districts almost metaphorically. The elites seek to maintain power while the people demand change. In this way, these results became evidence of who benefited for years from the current constitution: those who voted for the rejection option.

For the first time since the return of democracy, Chileans felt that their vote would have a significant effect on their lives and went to the polls en masse; the plebiscite had the highest electoral turnout since voluntary voting was established in 2012. Gone are the times in which the traditional left, the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, had to reach consensus with the right without being able to carry out major reforms due to the constraints set by the legacy of the dictatorship and its constitution. This time, the elections were not between choices that would lead to similar outcomes, in which even with victory for the left and a majority in Congress, the neoliberal model would continue to prevail.

The overwhelming triumph of the approval shows that Chileans understand the economic model. The threats that the right used in its campaign of rejection — an alleged increase in unemployment, the much-announced end to economic growth, or the most popular of all, that we would become another Venezuela and be another failed attempt at socialism in Latin America — did not prevail over the evidence that the current subsidiary state system benefited only a few who have been overrepresented in Chilean politics. Perhaps Chile did wake up, as the slogan of the protests says. Or maybe the common citizen had never felt the opportunity to make real changes to the country with his or her vote, and therefore had not gone to the polls.

Chileans not only seem to be leaving behind the last legacies of the dictatorship, but are also convinced that they can forge a new identity, away from the limiting stigmas of the past. The Mapuche flag was noted among the apruebo (approve) celebrations, almost outnumbering the Chilean flag. The racist stigma created in colonial times against the Mapuche as a lazy people, as not conforming to Western values — in the words of the renowned historian Gabriel Salazar — seems to have no place in the new Chile that at least 5,886,421 Chileans expect to build.

The Chilean people celebrate the overwhelming triumph of working toward a new constitution for their country. (Photo courtesy of Janet Waggaman.)
Enzo Nervi.

Enzo Nervi is a student in UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Practices Program and is originally from Valparaíso, Chile. After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Administration and a Master’s Degree in Economics and Public Policy from the Adolfo Ibáñez University, he did an internship at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. He was also a teaching assistant for the UC Berkeley course “The impact of globalization in Latin America.”

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