Right wing wins Chilean plebiscite

Protest in Santiago, Chile, October 2019 (Photo: Carlos Figueroa/public domain)

The activists of the movement in Chile have suffered an undeniable defeat in the plebiscite on the new constitution. The result has been seen as a bucket of cold water over all activists, with the general feeling of a sense of bewilderment and frustration amongst activists in the social movement and the political left.

Fear won over hope and the bourgeoisie played their cards very well, appealing to backward emotions of xenophobia, racism, fear of losing your house, fear of unemployment, and chaos in an unprecedented and vicious mass campaign in the media. The rejection of the new constitution that at this moment bad health care, bad pensions, bad public education, and massive obstacles to securing a home will continue along with the destruction of the environment.

The result of the plebiscite is reminiscent of the situation which arose with the electoral victory of Sebastian Pinera when he was re-elected for his second Presidential mandate in 2018 by a wide margin. Little by little, protests developed and became more generalized until October 2019 when a mass social uprising took place. Let us remember the lyrics of the popular song, “Vuelvo”, celebrating the end of exile: “Man is never conquered; defeat is always short, something within will move – the vocation of his war”.

The political and social crisis that was opened by the mass revolt in October 2019 has not ended. The demands of the people in this uprising have not been met. This uprising was brutally repressed with systematic abuses of human rights, killings, mutilations of protesters’ eyes, other state violence, and sexual abuses. The demands of millions – especially of youth, women, and workers in the streets – compelled the political caste to reach an agreement and open a process of constitutional change. These changes were limited, preventing discussion on certain questions and requiring a two-thirds majority, which the Socialist Party (Chile) and Frente Amplio blocks refused to change. There still remain in prison participants of the revolt and immunity for the crime committed by the state forces.

The right-wing win is relative

The right clearly won the plebiscite but with a relative base of victory. They even recognize the need for a new constitution. This could trigger things to move forward again.

The proposal which won the vote was to reject the new constitution and maintain the 1980 Constitution of Pinochet. This is the legal situation but it is not politically viable. The Constitution of the dictatorship has completely lost its legitimacy in the sense that it is dead but judicially it remains for now. Even the majority of the right-wing forces and the ex-coalition Concertación, which supported a no vote, agree that the constituent process needs to be reinitiated. For 30 years these parties opposed replacing the constitution of the dictatorship and opposed any changes which changed the character of the state to oppose neo-liberalism. It is a defeat for them in that their no campaign in this plebiscite they did not defend the 1980 constitution. They called for a new Magna Carta which satisfied everyone. The most conservative layers of the right did not, therefore, win everything they wanted. In the last 30 years, Chile has gone through a cultural and social transformation and the vote in the plebiscite will not change that. This will boomerang on the bourgeoisie and the decomposition of the political caste. The country has changed.

If, once again, the two right-wing blocks get intoxicated with their electoral victory they do not understand the bitterness within society. People are sick and tired of abuses; the record inequality on the continent means permanent instability, which has always panicked the ruling parties and yet they prepare the way for it.

It remains unclear how the right-wing parties will reinitiate the constituent process. This time the political caste, without doubt, will try to ensure that it blocks the expression of the popular feelings of the masses. For us, the working class, the struggle for a new constitution will be at the centre to end the state, as it is, and defending neo-liberal capitalism, to open the way towards a political programme of a socialist character rooted amongst the masses. What they failed to do for 30 years, the ruling class cannot do now simply by asserting their own will. All the pressures and conflicts and struggles will re-flower if they believe the danger has passed. For this reason, our response and mood flowing from this defeat must be to renew the pressure and struggle.

The mass revolt was not defeated

It is important to recognize that what opened the road to a new constitution was the mass revolt that was never defeated despite facing brutal repression. It entered a downturn following the Congressional pact agreed upon on the 15th of November 2019 and then the arrival of the COVID pandemic.

The biggest problem is that a political alternative has not been built with strong roots in working-class neighborhoods, workplaces, and education facilities. This would allow activists to argue and counter the falsehoods of the ruling class and develop anti-system socialist opinions and policies. Building such a new political force amongst the working class and other exploited layers is the challenge we face.

If the struggle for propaganda continues to be limited so that the poorest and non-political layers of the population only get information from the TV totally controlled by the right-wing reactionaries, and in the adverts and propaganda paid for on the internet, further defeats will be suffered. A new political force of the working class will need to build its own means of communication, including better use of social media.

Some reasons for the defeat 

The campaign to discredit the Constitutional Convention began before it was installed. Fake news, distortions, and lies were constantly propagated in the media. However, we should have expected a “clean game” from a ruling class that has not vacillated to carrying out military coups and massacres to defend its interests. On the other hand, the Convention was very weak in making its proposals and advances known, including at the end regarding the contents of the new constitution. The vote was compulsory, which was a change from previous elections and plebiscites. The total number of votes was higher than in all previous elections. The vote of those not normally participating was decisive.

A referendum about Boric’s government

On the other hand, to vote to approve the new constitution seemed for many like a referendum on the current political situation and they confused it with a vote for or against Boric’s government which is already unpopular. According to polls, the government only has the support of one-third of the population. This is mainly because it has not met the high expectations which existed when Boric and his coalition won and formed the government.

The world economic situation demands measures permanently of a public character and the government appears weak and looking to prove its maturity to the bourgeoisie. Only towards the end of the campaign did it put an end to the payment of health care for the very poorest and introduced a 40-hour working week but still opposed the right of people to withdraw more money from their pension funds. Boric’s government is a weak executive which has been seen to be more concerned to show its “maturity” to the ruling class than rapidly confronting the problems which confront the mass of the population, especially those not engaged in politics.

The clear defeat of the plebiscite with 62% votes against the new constitution was a frustrating result. This is especially because a little more than a year previously opposition to the 1980 Consitution and support for a new constitution won 78% support. This was reflected in the election to a convention by universal suffrage, with parity between the genders and the representation of indigenous peoples. In these elections, the leaders of the traditional parties were rejected, and the convention had many women and independents from the left. Nevertheless, a project which included, in addition, recognition of different identities was thrown out.

No reclaiming copper

One of the biggest failings of the Convention was not to approve taking back into public ownership copper and other natural resources. This allowed the right wing to sow confusion and doubt about how reforms, such as social rights, would be financed. The right presented these sectors as guarantors of the country and one of its symbols. The taking back into public ownership of these natural resources, which the right opposed, would not only have provided the resources to pay for reforms and implement a new model of social development; it would have unmasked the anti-national character of the conservative forces and the bourgeoisie and its false patriotism, as it is linked with the multi-national corporations.

The ‘Reject’ campaign

The final activities of the Reject campaign were pathetic, without any capacity for mass mobilisation. Alternatively, the ‘Approve’ campaign had gigantic assemblies. After a big win for the ‘reject’ throughout the country, there were hardly any celebration rallies. But the “pretty people” who vote conservative don’t like big crowds.

A new social revolt, including many people who voted to reject the new constitution, is very likely. It may not take place tomorrow but we should remember the triumphalism of the right after the victory of Pinera’s last government. He failed to recognize the massive discontent that existed in society. His advisers, later dismissed, had warned Pinera about this. Pinera insisted that Chile was different from the rest of Latin America and “an oasis of tranquility”.

There is a global economic and social crisis unfolding. The elite are not capable of satisfying the main needs and demands and aspirations of the population. Boric and his weak government are on the back foot now. The government will look to save itself by taking in the rest of the Concertacion coalition, that is to say, turning further to the right.

The growth of the far right

We cannot fail to recognize that within the vote to reject there were elements of racists, xenophobes, misogynists, and a fear of the future and change. In the difficult situation which is unfolding, of instability, fall in employment and increase in precarious work, the ingredients for far-right populism, as we have seen in Brazil with Bolsonaro, and the USA with Trump, get worse. The discontent can translate into a growth of the far right, which seems likely in the short term. This is facilitated by the weakness of Boric and his government.

The only way to prevent this danger is the building of an alternative of the left, with a strong base amongst the working class and poor, and with a clear socialist programme.


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September 2022