Chileans Vote to Step Back from the Socialist Brink

Daniel Raisbeck

Back in August of 2022, I wrote about how a small band of sanctimonious, sophomoric malcontents had—astoundingly—taken over the Chilean state. President Gabriel Boric, who was elected to his country’s highest office in 2021 at the age of 35, had assembled a team of former student activists. Since the early 2010’s, their main contribution to Chilean society had consisted of leading numerous protests against the country’s soi disant “neoliberal” model. First, it was against school choice and profit in the education sector. Then it was against the private pension system. Finally, in 2019, mild fare hikes for the Santiago metro led to some of the most violent riots in Latin America’s recent history, euphemistically labeled a “social outburst” in the media.

With 80 metro stations partially or fully destroyed, dozens of toll booths incinerated, and even churches set on fire, then president Sebastián Piñera, nominally of the center‐​right, capitulated. He met with left‐​wing parliamentarians, Boric among them, and agreed to hold a referendum on whether to summon a new constitutional assembly. When the vote was held in October of 2020, the option to get rid of Chile’s current constitution won with an overwhelming 78 percent of the vote.

At the time, it seemed that Chileans had needlessly committed an absurd act of self‐​harm. After all, the constitution was originally ratified in 1980, under the Pinochet regime, but it was amended numerous times since, most thoroughly under the social‐​democratic administration of former president Ricardo Lagos (2000 to 2006). The constitution’s unequivocal respect for property rights and basic economic liberties—something exceptional in Latin America—helps to explain the Chilean economy’s outstanding performance during the better part of four decades.

In 2019, the International Monetary Fund calculated that Chile was on track to reach levels of GDP per capita at purchasing power parity that would match those of Portugal and Greece. To approximate southern European standards of wealth was quite an achievement given that, between 1950 and 1970, Chile’s economy was “the poorest among Latin America’s large and medium‐​sized countries” according to a Library of Congress country study.

While the current constitution ushered in an extraordinary run of economic success, its proposed replacement was almost certain to do the opposite. In May of 2021, leftist parties won the elections to choose a constitutional assembly by a landslide. They proceeded to draft a new constitution that The Economist described as “a fiscally irresponsible left‐​wing wish list.” With its 54,000 words, it was a somniferous, exceedingly long blend of old‐​fashioned statism and the type of social engineering that is so in vogue among first‐​world progressives.

As I wrote at the time, the draft sought to ban “job insecurity,” expand welfare programs, mandate gender parity in all public institutions, and create “social” rights that would expand the role of the state in health care, education, and housing. The document would have allowed property and asset seizures by legislative decree without compensation for rightful property owners. It sought to constrain the mining industry, eliminate school choice, and to disband the Senate, making it easier for the executive branch to circumvent the opposition and enact its agenda. Alas, it all proved a bridge too far for a majority of Chileans.

Last September, 62 percent of voters rejected the constitutional draft in a national plebiscite. It was a serious political blow for President Boric, who had won the 2021 presidential election as the head of a coalition assembled specifically to introduce a new, left‐​wing constitution. Boric’s plebiscite defeat forced him to steer his government away from the far left and negotiate with other political parties. According to the new agreement, there would be a new constitutional convention, to which the parties with seats in the Senate could appoint legal experts. This commission of experts proposed a framework of 12 basic rules that, they suggested, should not be breached in the drafting process. Plus, a new election would be held on May 7th, 2023 to choose a Constitutional Council responsible for drafting yet another constitution.

Held last Sunday, the election’s results amounted to a political upheaval. The Republican Party led by José Antonio Kast, a pro‐​free‐​market conservative who lost to Boric in the 2021 presidential election’s run‐​off, came in first place among all parties with an impressive 35 percent of the vote. With their potential allies, the Republicans will be able to control the necessary three fifths of the Constitutional Council to veto any proposal that arises. Better yet, says Chilean lawyer Ricardo Meno, since the right holds two thirds of the Constitutional Council, it can reject the proposals of the Expert Commission, for instance the point that declares the “social rule of law” (Estado social de derecho) for Chile.

This is a crucial point since the “social rule of law” is a dangerous, positivist spin on the rule of law proper. In other countries, it has paved the way for outsized public spending and utter fiscal recklessness. As Chilean writer Axel Kaiser points out, Hugo Chávez applied the “democratic and social rule of law” to his 1999 constitution of Venezuela, a formerly rich country in relative terms that, thanks to Chavismo, became Latin America’s poorest. In Colombia, where the 1991 constitution also stipulates the social rule of law, the high‐​level spending necessary to maintain a “social democratic” model has led to chronic fiscal deficits, constant tax increases, and an over‐​reliance on oil revenues to cover current spending. Which is to say that when social rights take no heed of taxpayers’ real‐​world capacity to pay for promised services, you have no rights at all. There is merely exploitation.

On a more amusing note, Mr. Meno comments that Chile’s new Constitutional Council could, in theory, come up with a draft that is both more economically liberal and more socially conservative than the 1980 constitution. In which case the hard left’s monumental struggle to get rid of Chile’s current, moderate constitution would backfire spectacularly. However, the Republicans have to consider that the new draft they will oversee still has to be approved in a plebiscite. This might motivate them to proceed with some moderation. Likewise, since Kast has his eye on the presidency, it is likely that he will look to build a pragmatic coalition that can carry him over the finish line in 2025.

Often branded “far‐​right” in the Chilean and international media, Kast is a social conservative who broadly favors free market policies. As Chilean economist José Luis Daza noted, Kast’s Republicans merely stuck to bread‐​and‐​butter issues that the traditional Christian democrats had deemed too controversial to even mention: law and order, control over the borders, support for the popular gendarmerie (which Boric’s allies sought to eliminate) and the market economy, as well as a defense of the revered national symbols that the extreme left continually vilified, the Chilean flag being a case in point. By filling this large political void, the Republicans became Chile’s main conservative party. In the eyes of many voters, the Christian democrats had become indistinguishable from the center‐​left parties, which, in turn, had subjected themselves to Boric and his extremist allies.

If the far left decides to reject the draft of the Republican‐​controlled Constitutional Council—and it likely will—this will leave Boric’s coalition in the hilarious conundrum of having spent years assuring voters that Chile desperately needs a new constitution, only to campaign against the new constitution in offer. However, if the “reject” side wins the next plebiscite, Mr. Meno says, the 1980 constitution will remain in force. Cue years, or perhaps decades, of intra‐​leftist squabbling over who is to blame for blowing a once‐​in‐​a‐​lifetime opportunity to ditch Chile’s wicked, “neoliberal,” Pinochet‐​tinged, prosperity‐​producing project.

Leave the comedic aspect aside, and you will find that, paradoxically, all the most recent political uproar can only assuage the fears of the many Chileans concerned with what might have been the end of their nation’s astonishing success story. After four tumultuous years, it is time for Chileans to leave the constitutional nonsense behind. They should continue to build the first fully developed country in Latin American history.

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