Opinion | Will Chile Set an Example for True Democracy?

On Oct. 25, Chileans will vote to reject or approve the start of creating a new constitution. The citizens of more countries should do the same. The country’s current Constitution, written under the authoritarian rule of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, has protected conservative interests and the military and has suppressed political dissent for 40 years.

Chile’s struggle with its authoritarian past is not unique. Countries with recent democracies like Myanmar, South Korea and Turkey have operated under authoritarian constitutions for years or even decades. My research indicates that more than two-thirds of political transitions to democracy since World War II — in more than 50 countries — occurred under constitutions written by the outgoing authoritarian regime. In some countries like Argentina that have flip-flopped between democracy and dictatorship multiple times, several democratic transitions have been guided by authoritarian-penned constitutions.

Persistent authoritarian influence under democracy is a recipe for inequality and democratic discontent. Democracies with authoritarian-era constitutions have weak political accountability and not enough citizen involvement in forming policies. And their political systems favor elites tied to the former regime rather than common citizens.

Inequality in Chile is at similar levels to the Pinochet era, while influence peddling by the wealthy — some of whom gained their fortunes through connections with Mr. Pinochet and insider privatizations — is pervasive.

This toxic mix exploded last fall, fueling widespread street protests that struck at the heart of the country’s reputation as a beacon of stability and progress in Latin America, gained in four decades of market economy. Chile’s reputation has only eroded further since then, given the country’s poor handling of the pandemic. Even within a region hit hard by Covid-19, Chile quickly emerged as a hot spot, with among the world’s highest infection rates per capita.

Its performance reflects yet again how Chile’s billionaire businessman president, Sebastián Piñera, is grossly out of touch with how most Chileans live. The pandemic has ravaged poor neighborhoods where living conditions are crowded, health services are limited, and citizens cannot afford to shelter at home.

The vote to convene a constitutional assembly in Chile could lead to a new document that brings the leadership closer to the people by decentralizing the political system and introducing formal mechanisms for citizen consultation and referendums. It could also enshrine greater rights for labor unions, establish health care and education as fundamental rights, guarantee equality for women, and grant greater autonomy to Indigenous groups.

The Piñera government knows this and is acting to counter major political change. Activists report that the government has used the pandemic as a pretext to step up repression and muzzle the opposition. Two weeks ago, a video circulated that showed a policeman pushing a teenager off a bridge during a protest, sparking widespread condemnation. This builds on top of what was an already brutal assault by security forces on protesters last fall.

Chile exemplifies how dictators that draft constitutions can sideline the public’s interests. The Constitution provided safeguards for the military and its authoritarian allies when they formally handed over power in 1990. It gave the top military brass Senate seats, granted the military authority to choose the head of the armed forces, and shunted 10 percent of Chile’s enormous copper revenues to the military budget. It also provided amnesties to Mr. Pinochet and other generals, enshrined an electoral system crafted to overrepresent conservative parties, and banned parties from the extreme left.

The Constitution has been reformed several times over the years. In 2005, civilian control over the military was strengthened and designated lifetime Senate seats were eliminated. Still, supermajority thresholds for reform have protected many of its basic elements.

Most of Chile’s protesters and their supporters are largely motivated by bread and butter issues like higher pay, gender equity, improved health care access and quality medical care, pension reform, more rights for Indigenous peoples, access to affordable public transportation and free public education. But they also want a political voice and respect from government institutions that have long focused on balancing budgets, attracting investment and safeguarding stability.

Protesters view a new constitution as key to delivering on these demands. The status quo is thoroughly discredited: Approval ratings of Congress and the president are scarcely in the double digits. A constituent assembly can fill the current leadership void by drawing citizens into a consultative process to steer the country into the future and elevate their core interests to reshape its political leadership.

The reform process does not necessarily need to derail Chile’s status as an economic darling of the region. A more inclusive political system that advances the interests of most citizens can also benefit employers through political stability and happier and healthier workforces. Some of the world’s oldest and most highly developed democracies, such as Sweden and Denmark, overturned authoritarian constitutions and embarked on a path to success.

But the process is not without risks. As the initial referendum scheduled for April was postponed and the debate rages on, the risks that the discourse could be hijacked by extremist groups from the left or right is growing.

Many current protesters foresaw this risk early on and channeled their efforts into thousands of town-hall meetings to involve their neighbors, and into graphic art and music that telegraphs and disseminates their message. Others, especially women, organized by the tens of thousands around a broad demand of inclusion to ensure that their voices are heard. But with gatherings limited by the pandemic, online forums and social media have become relatively more important, giving greater voice to extreme but well-funded voices.

Other democracies saddled with authoritarian-written constitutions should follow Chile’s example. This is not always easy. Myanmar scheduled a national referendum to overhaul its military-drafted Constitution in 2015. But the military — which had reserved a quarter of congressional seats and set the threshold for amending the Constitution at above three-quarters — helped to scuttle the most important changes. The referendum was indefinitely postponed.

Other countries have been more successful. Colombia shed its authoritarian Constitution in 1991 and bolstered its democracy. Although the country remains unequal and is struggling with issues tied to its civil war like land restitution, the Constitution provided a platform for even marginalized citizens to protect their basic rights through a simple legal petition mechanism known as the tutela system. Tunisia replaced its authoritarian Constitution in 2014. The same is true of a number of former satellites of the Soviet Union such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Georgia — although in Hungary, the reform process was hijacked by Viktor Orban as a way to entrench his political power.

If Chile’s constitutional reform serves as a steppingstone from dictatorship to a more authentic democracy, it will set an example for other new democracies that face similar challenges — such as Indonesia, Guatemala, and Peru — to do the same.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the co-author of “Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.”

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