The 2020 Chilean Plebiscite: Overview, Citizen Engagement, and Potential Impact

The current Chilean constitution was drafted and ratified in 1980 during the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. It has since been amended 42 times by subsequent democratically elected presidents and the National Congress. During President Michelle Bachelet’s second term, from 2014-2018, a more liberal constitution was drafted, with extensive citizen consultation, in response to public calls to replace Pinochet’s constitution. However, the submission of the new document to Congress for approval in 2018 coincided with the election of conservative president Sebastián Piñera, and the constitutional reform was abandoned.

In October 2019, Chile erupted into violent protests over socioeconomic inequality, which produced demands for a new and more egalitarian constitution. Chile has the highest level of income inequality among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) and Development: in 2017, the wealthiest 20 percent of citizens earned 8.9 times more than the poorest 20 percent. Chile’s current Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality scaled from 0 to 1 with 1 being the highest, is 0.46. By comparison, the United States’ is 0.39, and the average Gini coefficient for OECD countries is 0.32.

Many citizens believe the current state of inequality stems from Pinochet’s constitution and the neoliberal economic model his regime implemented. Protesters further believe this inequality is exacerbated by the low quality of public resources, such as health care, pensions, and schooling. People in favor of a new constitution view it as an opportunity for greater citizen participation in decisions about public services and other institutions that impact the lives of all Chileans, and especially lower-income citizens.

The government initially proposed that Congress alone draft the new constitution, but many Chileans feared that Congress would not make meaningful changes and demanded that citizens play a greater role. As a result, the government proposed that an elected assembly of constituents participate in the drafting of a new constitution. The plebiscite was originally scheduled for April 2020 but had to be rescheduled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is now scheduled to take place on Sunday, October 25, 2020. Chileans will vote on two questions: do you want a new constitution, and what type of convention should draft the new constitution? There are two proposed type of conventions: a mixed constitutional convention made up of 172 members, of which one half would be members of Congress selected in a parliamentary plenary session and the other half citizens directly elected by the people, or a constituent constitutional convention composed solely of 155 directly elected citizens.

The Legal Foundation of the Plebiscite

The institution of the plebiscite holds a significant place in Chilean history. Chile’s 1988 plebiscite had catastrophic consequences for Pinochet: his regime ended when Chileans voted to end military rule and restore democracy. The 1988 plebiscite had been planned out in Pinochet’s constitution, which called for him to rule from 1980-1988 before holding a vote as to whether to continue with military rule or hold democratic elections. To the dismay of Pinochet and the rest of the military junta, 56 percent of voters favored a transition to democracy. One year later, Chilean voters democratically elected Patricio Aylwin.

The legal process leading to this year’s plebiscite began almost one year ago, in November 2019. Ten parties from the government and opposition signed the Acuerdo por la Paz Social y la Nueva Constitución (Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution) to convoke the plebiscite. In March 2020, Chile’s Congress followed up this document with an additional law providing for gender parity among the directly elected citizens participating in the constitutional convention. Per Pinochet’s original constitution, the right to a plebiscite is protected as a key tool for democratic participation, and the president may call a plebiscite at any time.

The Acuerdo por la Paz Social y la Nueva Constitución outlines not only the structure of the plebiscite, but the reason for the vote as well. The signatory parties state that the plebiscite is necessary for a return to peace and social justice after the violence of the protests. The plebiscite itself, given its democratic nature, represents the first step toward fulfilling the protesters’ demands for increased public participation in government.

Public Opinion

A recent Cadem poll found that 63 percent of Chileans are interested in the results of the referendum. Another poll, conducted in August by Ipsos and Espacio Público, found that 41 percent of respondents saw the vote as an opportunity for change, and 19 percent felt hopeful about its results. In addition, 65 percent said the election presents an opportunity for positive impacts on the country, democracy, and everyday life.

But there is opposition to the creation of a new constitution, particularly from right-wing parties. The debate over the plebiscite has played a central role in splitting Piñera’s own coalition. Opponents of constitutional reform view the current document as a key element of Chile’s economic success and relative stability over the last decades. The Pinochet government’s overhaul of the Chilean economy made the country a poster child for neoliberalism toward the end of the twentieth century and helped make Chile one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America.

Left and center-left-leaning parties, on the other hand, are the strongest supporters of constitutional reform and have launched broad campaigns to promote it. Critiques of Pinochet’s constitution object to its neoliberal policies, claiming that it favors markets over public welfare. In particular, many object to the privatization or shrinkage of social welfare services in the name of limiting state economic intervention under. Advocates for a new constitution expect that it will place increased responsibility on the government for the provision of such services.

There is also a complex debate around the plebiscite’s second question. Those who favor a mixed convention highlight that members of Congress have legislative experience, which may be helpful in drafting a new constitution. Advocates for a constituent convention, who mostly fall toward the political left and express low trust in political institutions like the legislature, say that Congress was not elected to draft a constitution. They also highlight that a constituent convention will have gender parity guaranteed by the law passed in March 2020.

But there are also critics who argue that there may not be a great difference in the type of constitution a mixed or constituent convention would produce. The process used to elect citizens to the constitutional assembly, known as the d’Hondt system, favors larger blocs at the expense of independent candidates or small parties, which means that candidates who form coalitions along party lines will have an advantage. Some say this may result in a constituent assembly with an ideological resemblance to Congress and will therefore produce a constitution similar to one that would emerge out of a mixed convention.

The debate around the convention also touches on civil rights. Indigenous communities make up 13 percent of Chile’s population and are historically underrepresented in politics. Like many other former colonies, Chile has a long history of violence, discrimination, and conflict with its indigenous communities, which continues even today. The Mapuche, Chile’s most numerous indigenous community, are not formally recognized in Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, making it much more difficult for them to engage in politics or take legal action as a group. Activists believe that legal recognition of the Mapuche and other indigenous groups is crucial to their civil rights and political agency, and many view indigenous representation in the convention as necessary to the codification of their rights.

However, unlike the movement to ensure gender parity in a constituent constitutional convention, efforts to ensure indigenous representation have been unsuccessful. In August of 2020, Representative Catalina Perez put forth a proposal to reserve 25 seats for indigenous people in a constituent convention and 27 seats in a mixed convention, but the resolution has not been approved.

What Do Current Polls Say?

Current polls indicate a strong lead for constitutional reform. A recent Activa poll found that 68 percent of respondents plan to vote for a new constitution, while only 10.3 percent plan to vote against reform. Furthermore, 49 percent of respondents plan to vote for a convention consisting only of elected citizen delegates, while 25.8 percent plan to vote for a mixed convention. These results are consistent with polls from earlier this year, which uniformly favored constitutional reform. Though support for a new constitution has fallen since the fall of 2019, when protests were at their peak, the movement for reform has maintained a strong majority.

Turnout may prove to be a key factor in the plebiscite’s results. There are a number of factors may decrease voter turnout among those who favor a new constitution. In recent presidential elections, 50-60 percent of the electorate voted, but current polls suggest that as many as 78 percent of citizens are highly likely to vote. Turnout is often higher among older and more educated Chileans, who tend to be more conservative and are more likely to vote against the constitutional process. Turnout among young, lower-class, and rural voters has traditionally been low due to low trust in government, which has only fallen even more amid the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fears of the virus may also lower turnout overall.

The Impact on Daily Life

The plebiscite and its surrounding circumstances have already impacted Chile’s economy significantly. The 2019 protests and the possibility of constitutional reform have led to economic uncertainty, which has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the postponement of the plebiscite due to the virus extended this period of economic insecurity. Uncertainty can have severe impacts on economic growth, especially for developing economies that rely on foreign investment and trade partners. Foreign companies may scale back their investments leading up to the plebiscite as they await its outcome and resulting economic impacts.

Much of this uncertainty stems from the potential for a new constitution to significantly reform Chile’s economic system—advocates for a new constitution are seeking an expansion of welfare and other public services. Chile’s current economic structure is open and market-based, with very limited state intervention, and increased welfare will require a much more significant economic role for the state. Proponents of these changes argue they may lead to growth, as social safety nets expand and as people have more resources to use for consumption and participation in the economy. On the other hand, opponents of changes to the economic system fear that change may upset the economic stability that Chile has experienced since the implementation of Pinochet’s economic reforms.

An expansion of social safety nets would also profoundly impact the day-to-day lives of ordinary Chileans. Lower- and middle-class Chileans have long felt the effects of economic inequality and lack of financial security. Pensions are low, health care and education is expensive, and the overall cost of living is untenable for many. If the new constitution includes provisions for increased welfare and access to opportunity, Chileans who previously struggled to stay afloat stand to gain enormously.

The new constitution may also impact civil liberties and protections, since those in favor of a new constitution are seeking to expand the rights of minorities and traditionally oppressed groups. The codification of such regulations also would give Chile more democratic legitimacy in the international sphere by proving the country’s commitment to civil rights. This may eventually make Chile more appealing to foreign investors, despite the current concerns about uncertainty and investment.

Last, a new constitution will help to lower social tensions by channeling the aspirations of a vast majority of citizens who saw that the fruits of the model established by the 1980 constitution were not distributed equitably.

Questions and Answers on the Chilean Plebiscite

Who can vote in the plebiscite? Citizens over 18 and foreigners residing in Chile for more than five years, except those who have been convicted of felonies. Voter registration is automatic: the Electoral Service automatically places eligible voters in the Electoral Register using data from the Chilean Civil Registry, which maintains detailed records of citizens and foreign residents, as well as from other government organizations.

How many people are eligible to vote? Voter registration is automatic. There are currently more than 14.85 million registered voters in Chile.

What provisions are in place to promote the equal participation of women? Political parties must use 10 percent of their funds to promote the participation of women in politics.

How will voters with disabilities cast their ballots? The Electoral Service has strict rules to protect voting rights and accessibility for citizens with disabilities. Voters may request assistance to complete their ballots and tampering with or preventing the vote of a voter with a disability is punishable by imprisonment.

Will Chileans abroad be able to participate in the plebiscite? Yes. Consulates will make polling stations available on Election Day.

How are the votes counted and tabulated? Polling stations receive, count, and review the votes before sending them to a national tribunal, which further examines the data and declares the results valid or null.

When will official results be announced? The national tribunal must declare the results of the plebiscite by November 27.

What safeguards are the electoral management body putting in place given the Covid-19 pandemic? The Electoral Service has published extensive guidelines that include requirements for masks and social distancing, protections for poll workers, and seniors-only voting hours.

How many times has the Chilean constitution been amended? The Chilean constitution has been amended 42 times since it was first passed in 1980, with numerous changes made to the document each time. The most extensive reforms took place in 1989, when 54 changes were passed, and in 2005, when 54 more were approved.

Further Reading

Margarita R. Seminario is deputy director and a senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Giulia Neaher is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program.

The authors are grateful to William R. Sweeney, CSIS senior associate, for providing valuable insights for this piece.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Margarita R. Seminario

Margarita R. Seminario

Former Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Americas Program

Giulia Neaher

Intern, Americas Program