Everyday People Are Designing Chile’s New National Constitution

Can this inclusive yet complex process reverse deep political polarization?

María Jesús Contreras for Noema Magazine

Steven Hill is the author of seven books, including “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.” He is the former policy director at the Center for Humane Technology and a cofounder of FairVote. His opinion pieces have appeared in many outlets, including the Washington Post, New York Times and CNN.com.

In a time when the news from Ukraine looks grim, a brighter beacon of political and social transformation may be emerging in another part of the world: Chile. The so-called “Land of Poets” has embarked on a journey in which everyday people are designing a new national constitution. The delegates are working their way through unknown territory, against a backdrop of entrenched political divides and bitter conflicts that go back decades. The result of their handiwork, which will be put to a national vote on September 4, is anything but certain.

Given Chile’s importance in Latin America as one of its wealthiest and most stable democracies, the outcome will likely have broader ramifications.  Democratic governments in many parts of the world have been struggling for legitimacy, including in Latin America. The nonprofit Freedom House has documented a rise in more authoritarian-type rule, not only among repressive states like Venezuela, Russia and China but also among troubled democracies like the United States, Hungary and India. Against this backdrop, Chile’s example highlights the potential to reinvent democratic governance, as the country integrates new methods for popular participation with more traditional political institutions and practices.

The constitution-writing process itself has become a major part of the story. That’s because it has been designed to ensure delegates come from a broad cross-section of Chileans, much like previous constitutional assemblies in Colombia, Bolivia, Tunisia, Ireland and Iceland. The goal is to reduce the usually outsized influence and narrow self-interest of political incumbents, political parties and hard-core partisans by introducing the pragmatism of everyday people into the mix. The Chilean experiment is also deploying components of “digital democracy,” as used in Taiwan, Italy and the European Union, to connect participants across great distances and create a robust deliberative process.

Yet while a new Chilean optimism has percolated throughout this multi-year process, questions and uncertainties loom — do regular Chileans have the expertise to forge a cohesive blueprint for a constitutional framework? Can this pluralistically inclusive yet complex process reverse some of the deep polarization that has afflicted Chile for the past 50 years?

The Dictator’s Constitution

Chile, a country of over 19 million, has known political turmoil off and on for decades, going back to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which bloodily overthrew the democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973. The current constitution was rammed through by the dictatorship, imposed “with blood, fire and fraud” according to Chile’s newly elected president, Gabriel Boric. Pinochet’s constitution locked into place a hyper-neoliberal free-market agenda with widespread privatization of public services and military dominance.

Since the dictatorship’s end in 1990, the constitution has been amended a number of times. Today, Chile is regarded as a Latin American star, known for comparatively clean governance, transparency and a vibrant, export-oriented economy. But the prosperity has not been broadly shared, and Chile is now the third most unequal country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with an income gap 65% wider than the OECD average.

During the latest explosion of social unrest in October 2019, Chile was shaken by an outburst of massive demonstrations. Echoing France’s 2018 “yellow vest” protests that were sparked by a gas tax increase, Chile’s protests began because of an unpopular public transportation rate hike — but demonstrators were also taking to the streets for broader goals, including better living conditions and political inclusion. At the height of the uprising, an estimated 1.2 million demonstrators packed Plaza Italia in Chile’s capital, Santiago. One of their major demands was an end to the dictator’s illegitimate constitution.

“While a new Chilean optimism has percolated throughout this multi-year process, questions and uncertainties loom.”

In response, the national government held a plebiscite in October 2020 that garnered 78% support to replace the old constitution with a fresh one (overall turnout was 51%, the highest since voting became voluntary in 2012). That resulted in the election of delegates to a constitutional convention in May 2021.

A perennial dilemma for representative democracies is how can they continually boost legitimacy by connecting in a real and vital way with the everyday people who are the backbone of that governing system. Amid fears that the constitution would be drafted by “the usual suspects” — political elites — the designers of the new constitutional convention have taken steps to enhance what I consider to be three crucial pillars of democratic governance: 1) broad representation, 2) an inclusive process and 3) a forward-looking mandate.

Mirror Representation

To achieve broad representation, the convention is combining elements of a traditionally elected assembly with an increasingly popular tool in the democracy toolbox, known as “citizens assemblies.”

Citizens assemblies draw inspiration from the direct democracy of ancient Athens, where everyday people would assemble with their fellow citizens to deliberate and vote on important issues. But ancient Athens’ democratic process only incorporated some 30,000 eligible adult men. Direct democracy is not so easy to execute in a mass society, with diverse populations in the tens and hundreds of millions and billions.

So Chile smartly used a proportional representation (PR) electoral system to select its constitutional delegates. PR methods are designed to produce broader representation by ensuring that what political scientists call the “votes to seats” ratio is fair. If a political party wins 51% of the popular vote, that party should win half of the elected seats, instead of all of them; if a party wins 10% of the popular vote, it should win 10% of the seats, instead of none of them.

Social scientists going back to Maurice Duverger in the 1950s have found that proportional systems tend to result in multi-party or multi-perspective representation, rather than a U.S.-style two-party duopoly. Compared to the “single-seat plurality” method used in the U.S. to elect most legislative bodies at the federal, state and local levels, proportional methods deliver what has been called “mirror representation.” John Adams described this concept in 1776, when he wrote in his “Thoughts on Government” that a representative assembly “should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large” and that “it should think, feel, reason and act like them.”

In more recent years, a number of countries have sponsored constitutional conventions in which they tried to maximize broad representation of everyday people and reduce the influence of existing political parties and leaders. In Colombia, where popular pressure succeeded in pushing the government to form a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, all political sectors agreed that members of Congress or anyone holding a government position could not run. Seventy delegates were chosen by popular vote in a nationwide election, including people from underrepresented sectors and independent candidates. It was a bottom-up process with over 1,500 working groups organized throughout the country, resulting in over 23,000 participants in the overall process. This nationwide mobilization resulted in a new constitution, known as the “Human Rights Constitution.”

“The convention is the most representative body in Chile’s history.”

A constitutional process in Iceland, however, was much less successful. Following the financial collapse of 2008 and widespread dissatisfaction with the government, the Icelandic parliament created a National Forum on constitutional reform. A quasi-randomly selected sample of 950 average citizens identified the priorities and values they wanted to see incorporated into the new Constitution, including democracy, human rights,, equal access to health care, and public ownership of Iceland’s natural resources, an OECD report noted. But though two-thirds of voters approved the resulting constitutional proposal in a non-binding referendum, the successor government did not act on its recommendations.

Nearby in the Republic of Ireland, the Parliament established a constitutional convention to propose possible amendments. Of the 100 delegates, 66 were randomly selected from among average citizens, 33 were elected politicians and one was an independently appointed chair. Initially, the constitutional purview was broad, but Parliament eventually whittled it down. Finally, the Irish public was allowed to vote on two proposals, with Ireland passing one of them: legalizing same-sex marriage, an important step in civil rights.

So Chile had a number of examples to learn from as it embarked on its own constitutional journey. Of Chile’s 155 constitutional delegates, 138 were elected in 28 districts (called “constituencies”) of between three and eight seats by a proportional method known as “open list” — when citizens vote for an individual candidate, their vote is also assigned to that candidate’s party list.

But the democratic designers added two other crucial components. First, to ensure that Chile’s indigenous peoples were not excluded as they had been historically, Chile set aside 17 seats for 10 different indigenous groups, weighted by the size of each group, giving them a share of the convention delegates (11%) that is intended to roughly equal their share of the national population.

Second, to ensure equal representation of men and women in the convention, all parties and alliances had to present a list of candidates alternating by gender. So if, for example, there is an overrepresentation of men in the convention, the elected man with the fewest votes would be replaced by a woman from the same alliance or party. In addition, each candidate list had to ensure that at least 5% of the names were candidates with disabilities.

The Chileans called this “plurinacionalismo” — plurinationalism — and their efforts produced clear results: The convention is the most representative body in Chile’s history. Not only are half of the delegates women, but many of its members are first-time office holders, including schoolteachers, shop owners, veterinarians, dentists, social workers, community activists, a car mechanic, a deep-water diver, a rural surgeon, a professional chess player and a homemaker. The average age of the elected members is 44.5 years (in contrast, the average age of a U.S. senator is 64.3 years), while the oldest member is 81 and the youngest 21 years old.

The “Usual Suspects” Get Usurped

Demographic diversity had been designed into the assembly, but this selection process also yielded an unexpected disruption to the typical political party dominance. Lists of independent activists ran in the elections, and other independents ran as individuals and won. Remarkably, two thirds of the 155 convention delegates have no political party affiliation. Andrés Velasco, a former finance minister of Chile, has written that “Chileans gave their current political establishment an embarrassingly diminished role. … Voters rejected not only the political and business elites, but also every other elite — academic, NGO, union, and media.”

For many critics of the tendency of representative democracies to transmogrify over time into ossified bureaucracies strangled by partisanship and special interests, this has been a dream come true. The “usual suspects” did not dominate.

Yet this has resulted in its own basket of challenges. These non-expert, nonaligned delegates are charged with the enormous task of cobbling together a coherent package of proposals that, in aggregate, must form a viable constitution and also win support from a majority of their fellow Chileans. This is proving to be no simple task, with opinion polls see-sawing up and down as new details emerge from the convention.

An Inclusive And Grassroots Process

The second pillar, trying to engage the citizenry via an inclusive process, also features some major innovations that draw heavily from “citizens assembly” methods and digital communication technologies. Practitioners like Stanford’s James Fishkin and his Center for Deliberative Democracy and others have demonstrated the enormous potential of “citizen-centered” and “digitally-enhanced” democracy as a balance to traditional representative democracy. Digital democracy, like the internet itself, has an impressive ability to connect diverse peoples spread across vast geographic areas. Here again, Chile has been able to learn from other countries’ experiences.

The EU’s Conference on the Future of Europe, which is being conducted substantially online in 24 languages, shows how a place like Chile, with its many indigenous groups and their languages, can be networked across vast distances. In Italy, a relatively new political party called the Five Star Movement pioneered use of the internet to inspire a bottoms-up citizens movement. Using its proprietary online platform, named Rousseau, thousands of FSM members were able to propose and deliberate online over specific pieces of legislation, some of them which then were introduced by FSM’s parliament members (including a law to establish a basic income for Italy’s poorest residents). However, attesting to some of the challenges inherent in digital democracy, leadership disagreements over the platform’s management led to the party splitting from the company running Rousseau and, for now, a de-emphasis on digital democracy.

In Taiwan, digital minister Audrey Tang has pioneered internet-based consultations between the government and its citizens.Tang,who is also Taiwan’s first ever transgender top cabinet official, has created online tools such as “vTaiwan” (virtual Taiwan) that have allowed everyday people to interact with policymakers to express concerns and help set policy agendas on areas from infrastructure to climate action. In some digital consultations, as many as 10 million people have participated, nearly half the nation’s population. Tang has said that these deliberative exercises create a kind of “collective intelligence,” which was instrumental in helping Taiwan to establish health-based COVID policies that became a model for many other countries.

“Not only will Chile’s new constitution be up for election, but it will also be a test of the vitality of citizen-led, internet-enhanced democracy.”

All of these real-world examples have shown how panels of average citizens, when given the right kind of institutional support, are able to exchange ideas and deliberate on complex issues. In Chile’s case, its constitutional process includes an innovative grassroots component that allows everyday people to propose constitutional amendments to the delegates. They can do this by collecting 15,000 signatures on a “popular initiative” from at least four different regions of the country. More than 980,000 people, from both the right and the left, have supported 2,496 initiatives introduced by citizens. So far 77 proposals have reached the qualifying signature threshold and been submitted to the delegates. These incorporate ideas from across the political spectrum, including some that contradict each other. For example, some initiatives propose to either nationalize — and other initiatives to privatize — mining and water resources. There are some to stop police brutality, others to defend the military. Other proposals include ones for expanding reproductive and sexual rights, instituting a national health system, promoting pro-indigenous rights, legalizing marijuana and guaranteeing pensions for the elderly.

Also there are many proposals from the delegates themselves, including some defending property rights and others calling for bestowing rights to the natural world, including animals and glaciers. Because of Chile’s unique shape — the pencil-thin country is nearly 2700 miles south to north, as long as the U.S. is wide, but only 150 miles at its widest point — a number of proposals are focused on issues related to regional autonomy. The convention’s vice president recently proposed that Chile scrap its presidential system and move to a parliamentary form of government.

It takes a majority vote for a proposal to pass out of a committee to the plenary. But it will take a super majority — a two-thirds vote — for any proposal to be included in the final constitutional package.

The convention has established a Committee on Popular Participation that has its own technical secretariat responsible for developing a digital participation platform. The internet and its digital plebiscitary methods have been well-harnessed, taking advantage of the fact that Chile has the highest internet penetration rate in Latin America at over 90% (on a par with that of the U.S.). Nationwide and regional hearings have been organized and additional consultation mechanisms have been included for indigenous peoples. Other web platforms have sprung up, managed by private groups and citizens to deliver news and monitor the convention, such as La Neta and Plataforma Contexto.

Indeed, without the widespread use of the internet, the convention would have much less visibility and credibility, since no public television or national radio programs have been regularly covering the convention. Instead, all sessions of the plenary and committees have been broadcast over YouTube, and a lot of information is broadcast and amplified through social media (especially Twitter, Instagram and Facebook). But internet coverage is not as widespread as TV, reducing somewhat the participation of the elderly, poor people and those in rural areas. In addition, the pandemic has impacted outreach and participation.

So the very architecture of Chile’s basic political, economic and social foundations is on the table of constitutional change. For some Chileans, this moment is terribly exciting. For others, it is filled with trepidation.

Too Broad Of A Mandate?

The greatest criticism of the convention has been over the third pillar of its mandate: the assembly’s search for a true popular and forward-looking direction. Should the delegates constrain themselves along narrow lines about institutional structures, and avoid substantive policy issues? When British Columbia impaneled a constituent body composed of randomly selected citizens, for example, it was limited to deliberate only on the choice of an electoral system to elect the provincial legislature. The Irish constitutional convention’s mandate was eventually limited by parliament to two proposals on the ballot for the voters to decide.

Should Chile’s constitutional convention also be held on a shorter leash?

“I worry about it becoming a runaway train of policy goals that do not have any business being in a constitution, which should be a document about institutional structures and norms,” said Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford University, via email.

David Altman, a professor from the Instituto de Ciencia Política at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, echoes this concern. “It would be better if the convention stuck to the basic architecture of political institutions — how you distribute power, how elections are held and so forth.”

Professor Altman also worries that too many polarizing issues may prevent the constitutional package from winning a majority vote. Speaking by phone from Santiago, Altman said “the inclusion of abortion rights, for example, will likely cause many religious conservatives to vote against the entire package.” Other proposals to more heavily regulate or even nationalize mining have drawn objections from some business and trade groups, and been rejected by the convention and sent back to committee for further refinement.

Claudia Heiss, a professor from the Universidad de Chile’s Institute of Public Affairs said in an email that she’s not too worried about such polarization. “It is true that certain proposals have been extreme. But this is a highly regulated and legal process, and the two-thirds vote required to approve norms ensures that extreme proposals or those that do not belong in a constitution will not make it to the final text.” Indeed, she said, the vast majority of proposals have been rejected.

By mid-April, 177 articles had been approved. Among them is a proposal to entirely replace the Senate with a new “chamber of regions” (the Senate is regarded by some as a patrician holdover from the dictatorship). The convention delegates have a lot work to do between now and July, when the convention will release its final package. Then the real work will begin to convince Chileans that their future is better secured with the proposed Constitution. If voters reject the new constitution, the current constitution will remain in force.

The September 4 date selected by Boric’s administration is intentionally symbolic: it was the traditional date for Chile’s presidential elections until the Pinochet coup ousted Allende. Nearly five decades later, Chile is poised on the threshold of a new dream. “This moment appears as a great challenge,” says Heiss, “but also as an opportunity to democratically and peacefully resolve a long-running political conflict. I am cautiously optimistic that the new constitution will allow building a bridge between political institutions and a society that has become increasingly divorced from them.”

Win or lose, Chile’s constitutional journey will add to previous examples that have demonstrated the possibilities to design political institutions and processes that maximize public participation and input. On September 4, not only will Chile’s new constitution be up for election, but it will also be a test of the vitality of citizen-led, internet-enhanced democracy.