From Military Junta To Citizens’ Assemblies

Chile’s reinvention of democracy challenges the legacy of autocrats everywhere.

Yeyei Gómez for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Contemplating the revolutionary moment, Vladimir Lenin once famously remarked that nothing can happen for decades, then decades can happen in a week. At other times it can take decades for the slow-moving dialectic of social and political transformation which reconciles opposites to unfold. This has been the case in Chile.

That sliver of a nation of 19 million people along the Pacific Ocean in South America has gone in the last half-century from one of the most brutal dictatorships in the Western hemisphere under General Augusto Pinochet to the present historic moment when citizens are empowered more than anywhere else in the world to craft the rules by which they will govern themselves in a new constitution.

In 1994, when I visited Patricio Aylwin, the first civilian president elected after the Pinochet dictatorship, his mandate was to repair a deeply riven and wounded nation through “transitional justice” that would account for those on the wrong side of power who were “disappeared” by the military junta. Now, in 2022, a constitutional convention, which will culminate in a popular referendum to endorse or reject a new constitution in September, is a radical exercise in fostering the inclusive appearance of citizens-in-full as the direct authors of their own destiny.

Rather than gathering the usual elite suspects and incumbents to draw up the future framework for ruling the nation, the public voted in a plebiscite after civil unrest in 2019 to hand the task over to the body politic itself.

“The convention is the most representative body in Chile’s history,” Steven Hill writes in Noema. “Not only are half of the delegates women, but many of its members are first-time officeholders, 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.”

To assure the widest possible inclusion through the election of 155 convention delegates through proportional representation, as Hill explains, “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 … 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. … In addition, each candidate list had to ensure that at least 5% of the names were candidates with disabilities.”

Further feeding into this process, multiple popular initiatives and citizens’ assemblies have taken place across the country along with cutting-edge digital deliberation forums and open online avenues for qualified proposals to be considered by delegates as they draft the new founding document. Notably, Chile has the highest internet penetration rate — 90% of the population — in Latin America.

Critics worry that the cacophony of voices and welter of conflicting interests engaged by such a radically inclusive project will stray so far from the core task of designing institutional structures and norms that consensus will prove beyond reach. Proponents are confident that such inclusion is the only way to mend the breach of distrust between the public and its institutions of self-government that afflicts all democracies today.

The importance of the outcome of Chile’s great experiment can’t be overstated. At a time when autocrats are back on the march elsewhere in the world, Chile’s experience is the chronicle of a future foretold by its own past: “We’ve been there, done that, and it doesn’t work.” The only alternative for open societies in the 21st century is to reinvent democracy by inviting citizens themselves into governance.