It’s 8 o’clock on a cold June evening in Santiago, and in Valentina Rosas’ apartment, nine people – all under the age of 30 – sit on a sofa and chairs around a coffee table. They drink soda, eat potato chips and listen to Rosas’ instructions as she lines up multicolored Post-its along a wall.
On each she has written a concept that the participants – architects, journalists, engineers – say aloud: words like justice, community, gender equality. The group then exchanges ideas about the best way to define these terms and wrestles with the question of how relevant they are for the kind of society they want.
To an outsider, this gathering may look like a university civics class. But these young Chileans are doing something more significant: They are working on their country’s next constitution.
“Our constitution includes values that stress too much the importance of order and doesn’t give enough space to the value of politics itself,” says Rosas, a 28-year-old political scientist at the Center for Public Policies at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, who assembled her group through social media. “That’s why I want it to change.”
Although it’s been 26 years since the end of the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, Chile is still governed by a constitution illegitimately adopted in 1980 under his military regime. There have been many revisions to the document, including important changes in 2005 curtailing the military’s authority. But during her 2013 election campaign, Chile’s socialist President Michelle Bachelet promised even deeper reforms that would make the constitution fully legitimate and less free-market friendly. Last October, she officially kicked off a process that involves both institutional and public participation in the drafting of a new constitution.
It’s a crucial endeavor. Not only does it symbolically seek to end Pinochet’s legacy, it also reflects Chileans´desire to find new ways of civic participation after a long period of transition in which reconciliation mattered more than debate. Chile, political analysts say, is taking a new step in the consolidation of its democracy.
“This process reflects quite well on the maturity of the Chilean democracy,” says Sumit Bisarya, who specializes in constitution building at the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental international organization based in Sweden.
Bisarya cites the openness of the process, noting that when citizens discuss how they view the constitution they are really discussing “how they view the relationship of the state to society and citizens to each other.” Countries that reform constitutions in absence of crisis “are only very established democracies, like Ireland, Luxembourg or Norway,” he says.
At the same time, the project has highlighted the deep distrust many Chileans have of the country’s politicians and revived old tensions between right and left.
The 1980 constitution was written under the influence of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman’s free-market model and protects a neoliberal system that some praise and others criticize as not satisfying the social needs of modern Chileans. At the center of the debate is a section of the constitution, which stipulates that the government can only develop or participate in entrepreneurial activities when it’s specifically permitted by a law that requires an absolute majority.
“There is a polarization, maybe not at the social level but at the political one, and that is because what is being discussed is the distribution of power,” says Claudio Fuentes, director of the School of Political Science at Chile’s Universidad Diego Portales. “The market-oriented system that is the backbone of the current constitution clashes with the ideals of the coalition in power, which believes that the state should play a more crucial role.”
In the past few months, constitutional lawyers, historians, political scientists, economists and even former presidents have publicly registered their enthusiasm or skepticism of the effort. Supporters of the reform movement praise a process they consider unprecedented and destined to help tackle inequality. Critics voice their concern that it may put additional strain on a slowing economy and divert attention from more pressing issues, such as the need to improve education, healthcare or public safety.
“There is criticism of this constitution because it was originally drafted under the dictatorship, but we can’t forget that in democracy it has been modified more than 30 times,” says Sebastián Soto, constitutional area director of the conservative think tank Libertad y Desarrollo. “Practice has turned it into a legitimate document.”
The constitutional reform process takes place amid Chile’s ongoing political turmoil. In the past two years, a number of politicians on both the left and the right have been indicted or are under investigation for illegal campaign financing. And President Bachelet’s approval rating has dropped significantly – reaching a record low of 22 percent in June – in part because of her daughter-in-law’s alleged involvement in corrupt business practices and partly because of the economic slowdown.
Estimations for Chile’s gross domestic product growth in 2016 are at 1.75 percent, down from 4 percent in 2013. President Bachelet’s determination to create an ambitious set of reforms aimed at guaranteeing more social rights has also exacerbated tensions between the ruling coalition and its political opponents. In this atmosphere, critics say, writing a new constitution should not be a priority.
Paradoxically, the Chilean people’s widespread disillusionment with politicians may explain the unexpected high level of public participation in the constitutional reform process. Patricio Zapata, president of the Council of Observers, an independent panel of 15 diverse citizens whose mission is to supervise the process, said the panel did not expect more than 2,000 local meetings to occur. Instead, more than 15,000 groups registered, 9,000 of which uploaded their conclusions to the web.
Rosas, who organized the local meeting, echoes this view. The local discussion groups, she says, seemed to satisfy a longing for civic exchange as much as they reflected a desire for a new constitution.
“The most useful part of this is the dialogue occurring in the meetings,” she says. “This is a process that people are paying attention to – maybe not in all socioeconomic groups or all neighborhoods. But we are finally discussing things, and that speaks very well of the democracy we are building.”