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Experts say news coverage led to Chile’s rejection of new progressive draft constitution

Chileans voted against the radical draft that would have transformed the state and guaranteed broad rights, yet consensus remains on building an alternative constitution to replace the current dictatorship-era document.

(CN) — Media coverage played a key role in Chilean voters' overwhelming rejection of a new constitution to replace the current document drawn up during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1980.

“One of the factors that undermined the approval of the draft constitution was the campaign of fake news and misinformation from the right-wing sectors,” said Ivette Hernandez Santibañez, a political sociologist at the University of Manchester, who was an observer at the Chile embassy in the U.K. during the referendum.

“This is something that echoes similar right-wing campaigns, such as the Colombia peace agreement referendum, Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, Trump in the U.S., and Brexit in the U.K.,” Santibañez said. 

In the mandatory referendum held on Sept. 4, 62% of the people voted to reject the new draft constitution, with 38% voting in favor — a clear message recognized by the president, who backed the draft document.

"Today the people of Chile have spoken, and they have spoken loud and clear,” said President Gabriel Boric during a speech as the result became clear. “They have given us two messages: the first is that they love and value their democracy, that they trust in it to overcome differences and move forward," he said in a conciliatory tone.

The referendum was the culmination of years of mass protests across the country, with protesters often confronted by police violence. Sparked by an increase in subway fares, social anger snowballed into a series of demonstrations against rising poverty, inequality and the lack of social protections.

The current constitution preserves the neoliberal fingerprints of the Pinochet era, which limits the role of the state and favors a market-led economic model. 

In an open letter signed by 37 leading economists and academics including Thomas Piketty, Guy Standing and Ha-Joon Chang, the draft was lauded as a “new global standard in its response to crises of climate change, economic insecurity, and sustainable development.”

The majority of Chileans, however, decided against this version of a future constitution. A survey by Plaza Pública found that the three main reasons for rejecting the draft were the negative opinion of the constitutional convention (40%), the instability and uncertainty that it would cause (35%), and the topic of plurinationality, which would recognize Indigenous communities in law (29%).

One of the strategies was to undermine the legitimacy of the convention, according to Santibañez.

“The Reject Campaign, along with an orchestrated right-wing media, successfully framed through misinformation the agenda for the political debate about the new constitution," she said. "As a result, the Approve Campaign was unable to unfold its own political agenda on the progressive and fairer future the new constitution will encompass.”

This constrained the Approve Campaign’s role to “mostly combatting fake news, such as the end of private health care, houses being taken away by the government, or that abortion would be permitted up until the nine-month period,” she added.

Another factor to help explain the failure of the Approve Campaign, according to Santibañez? Voting in the referendum was mandatory.

“This mandatory vote added to the plebiscite the participation of about 7.3 million voters, which turned into a silent majority for this process,” Santibañez said. In the 2020 vote that asked Chileans if they wanted a new constitution, turnout was around 50%. In the referendum on Sept. 4, almost 5 million approved the new constitution while around 8 million rejected it.

“It is precisely this silent majority that became the main terrain for this electoral campaign,” she said.

Santibañez noted that the turnout was high even though it was not required.

“Some Chileans, particularly children of former Chilean refugees who fled after [the military coup of] 1973, voted for the first time, so this represented a very symbolic moment for them,” she said.

Despite 78% of Chileans voting in favor of writing up a new constitution two years ago, the rejection of the draft prolongs the uncertainty of the country’s future political framework. 

Clear consensus remains on consigning the Pinochet-era constitution to the dustbin of history. Chile is now tasked with writing up an alternative that finds common ground across the political landscape.

“The government has emphasized that a new proposal will involve calling for the creation of a new constitutional convention with all delegates being elected in a plebiscite,” said Santibañez, with the new constitutional process needing to be approved by Congress.

The rejected draft constitution would have transformed the state into a provider of broad social and economic rights. It would have decentralized power by strengthening regional representation, provided greater rights for indigenous peoples, and prioritized the environment.

The turnout for electing members of the constitutional convention was low, leading to its broad left-wing and anti-establishment representation. This was highlighted in voting intentions that found an approval rating of 70% among the left but just 5% among the right.

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