Earlier this year, Chile drafted one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It would have guaranteed rights for indigenous people, social policies, and environmental protection. Let’s discuss what a constitution is, why Chile’s proposed constitution was unprecedented, and why it ultimately failed!
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Progressive (adj) – progressive ideas or systems are new and modern, encouraging change in society
His government promised to introduce more progressive social policies
Right (n) – the fact that a person can expect to be treated in a fair, morally acceptable, or legal way
Everyone has the right to education
Principle (n) – the basic idea or rule that explains or controls how something happens or works
The country is run on socialist principles
Fundamental (adj) – forming the base, from which everything else develops
We need to make fundamental changes to the way in which we treat our environment
Free market (n) – an economic system with only a small amount of government control, in which prices and earnings are decided by the level of demand
In a free market, if demand for a product increases, then so does its price
Indigenous (adj) – used to refer to, or relating to, the people who originally lived in a place
The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand
Provision (n) – a statement within an agreement or law that a particular thing must happen or be done
There are provisions in the law to protect foreign workers
Misinformation (n) – wrong information, information intended to deceive, or the fact that people are misinformed
There’s a lot of misinformation about the disease online
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Earlier this year, the South American country Chile announced plans to produce the world’s most progressive constitution. The constitution would have been historic and a world first. It would have guaranteed legal protection for the environment and indigenous people. There would have been access to universal healthcare and the right to an abortion.
This new constitution would have gone beyond most other constitutions in the world by focusing on social and economic rights, rather than just political and legal rights. It was supported by the country’s left-wing government and took years to draft and create.
And then it was rejected. Most Chileans decided against the new constitution. Today, I am going to explain the idea behind constitutions. Then I will discuss why Chile’s proposed constitution was so remarkable…. and why it failed!
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What is a Constitution?
I’m sure you have heard the term constitution before. Every country has a constitution, and some countries (especially the USA) love to talk about their constitutions. I think I have mentioned the word at least 20 times in my previous episodes – even in the earliest episodes on the 2020 American election. But what actually is a constitution?
I find the easiest way to think of a constitution is as a rule book. It is the rule book for a country or state. Within the constitution you can find the principles of the country. It contains the institutions that make up the country – the parliament, the government, the legal system, the military, and more. It explains the relationship between these institutions and their roles within the state.
The constitution also sets out the rights available to citizens of a country. For example, the freedom of speech or the right to vote in elections. The basic rules of a society are contained within their constitution – how leaders are chosen, what citizens can and can’t do, limitations on power, and much more.
The majority of constitutions take the form of a real, physical document – on this document the rules of the society are written down. We call this form of constitution a codified (or written) constitution. Usually, they are created after a major historical event: the American constitution was written after a revolution, the Japanese and German constitutions after total defeat in war, the post-soviet Russian and South African constitutions after a complete change in system of government, and constitutions of Africa after independence from European empires.
Within a codified constitution, the laws written on the document are considered fundamental. They are superior to other laws and cannot be changed easily. If you remember the episode from a few months ago on the supreme court, you will notice how the main role of that court is to judge laws against the standards of the constitution.
Is it possible to change a constitution? Yes… but it is not always easy. You usually require a national referendum, super-majority vote in congress, or even both. As the constitution is considered the fundamental laws of a country, it should be difficult to change without a high level of support. In the US, for example, to change the constitution two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives have to support the change, and then 38 of the country’s states have to also agree.
Does the UK have a constitution?
I mentioned how most countries have codified constitutions, but does every country? What happens if a country has never had a revolution, been totally defeated in a war, become independent, or had a dramatic change in government? Well, you get a country like the UK – my country.
The UK constitution is often described as unwritten. If you search online, you cannot find one single document with the fundamental principles of the UK – it doesn’t exist. Technically, it is not correct to say the UK constitution is completely “unwritten” as a lot of it is written down… but just not in one place.
The UK constitution has never been codified – that is brought together in one clear and concise document. New Zealand and Israel are two other famous examples of countries without written constitutions.
The UK has not had the kind of historic event that usually produces a constitution: rather than dramatic change our country has evolved slowly and steadily into a democratic constitutional monarchy. For a brief time, England did have a constitution after a revolution led by Oliver Cromwell… but this was short lived, and things quickly returned to normal.
However, the UK does still have a constitution – it is just more difficult to see. It is found in the laws, conventions, legal decisions, and political treaties that characterise British politics. Conventions are things that are not technically laws, but widely accepted traditions that have become basically a law – such as the Prime Minister being from the House of Commons in the UK (rather than the House of Lords).
Chile’s Proposed Constitution
Now we know what a constitution is, what was happening in Chile?
Chile is a country stretching down the Pacific of coast of South America. The current constitution was created under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet was a right-wing military dictator who took power after overthrowing the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in 1973. Under his rule, thousands of people were tortured, murdered, or disappeared as Pinochet cracked down on any criticism or opponents.
Pinochet included a series of free market inspired economic principles in the constitution. He lowered tariffs, invited foreign investment, made money on increasing copper prices, and joined trade agreements to boost the Chilean economy. While it did bring a certain amount of economic prosperity to the country, the Chilean people could never forget the crimes Pinochet’s governemnt committed.
He was forced out of power in 1990, but his constitution remained. Economic growth began to slow down and had stagnated by 2010. By 2019, most poor Chileans had problems accessing health care and education, and middle-class Chileans were forced to pay for privatised services to live a normal life.
The economic prosperity that came from Pinochet’s constitution did not reach the whole country. Chile is significantly more unequal than most other developed countries. Employment is low, and they don’t spend much money on education.
In October 2019, mass protests broke out across Chile. Ordinary Chileans, student groups, and indigenous peoples demanded change and resisted government restrictions for months. Eventually the protests brought about a decision to create a new constitution.
In October 2020, the vast majority of Chileans voted in support of creating a new constitution and chose 155 people to write it. The group of 155 people were chosen by the citizens, and mainly included liberal and independent members, as well as 17 seats reserved for indigenous peoples.
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What was so remarkable about Chile’s proposed constitution?
Most modern constitutions are based on something called civil and political rights. Chile, however, wanted to incorporate economic, social, and cultural rights. While both of these types of rights are considered fundamental human rights, there is an important difference.
Civil and political rights are seen as simple – they just involve a government not interfering with the rights of its citizens. Giving people freedom of speech is easy… just don’t stop them speaking. Giving people the right to assemble is easy… don’t make it difficult for certain people to get together.
Economic, social, and cultural rights tend to involve higher levels of economic investment and government action. These rights include things like the right to food, health care, and education – to achieve these the government must be involved.
This is a very simple explanation of human rights (I might discuss this in another episode in the future), but economic, social, and cultural rights formed an essential part of Chile’s new constitution.
The constitution they produced was unprecedented. It gave a level of rights to indigenous peoples that other countries have resisted. Under the constitution, indigenous people would have control of their own territory, their own legal systems, and indigenous politicians would need to be involved in all levels of government.
The constitution also had provisions making sure that women were fairly represented in government and public organisations. The rights of LGBTQ people were recognized, and the constitution guaranteed access to health care, education, water, and housing.
It contained provisions to increase technological and scientific developments within the country. Nature was also given rights – a strong form of environmental protection.
Most remarkably, the constitution would have given a constitutional right to abortion. Abortion was illegal in Chile until 2017 – and the new constitution would have enshrined the right to it!
In addition, there would be major political reforms. The role of congress would change, presidents would be allowed to serve consecutive presidencies, and the people would have more power.
In summary, the constitution would have fundamentally changed Chile. It would have introduced a wide range of social rights that are generally not included in most countries’ constitutions. Indigenous people would gain unprecedented rights, and there would be high levels of environmental protection and social rights.
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Why did Chile’s Constitution Fail?
As I mentioned right at the beginning of the episode, the constitution failed. It was not approved by the majority of Chilean citizens. Despite most people wanting a new constitution, they were reluctant to support the one that was drafted. It wasn’t even a close vote – 62% of people voted against it. Why?
There are a variety of reasons. Chileans wanted change, but the change in the constitution was radical and extreme. The group that wrote the constitution was mainly left wing and independent members, there was a lack of conservative members who would have countered the progressive ideas and perhaps produced a more balanced constitution that was still progressive but also realistic.
The constitution would have changed the country’s entire social and political system. Many Chileans, including some indigenous groups, were concerned at the idea of an indigenous legal system and confused by the new powers given to indigenous peoples. There were also worries about how the country was going to afford the new policies, and whether these policies would be able to become laws.
However, the biggest issue was likely a lack of communication and a lot of misinformation. A lot of Chileans believed false reports online that exaggerated or misinterpreted certain measures within the new constitution. One widespread rumour was that the government would be given the right to confiscate private property. Another was that abortion would be legal until 9 months. While these were not true, the committee that drafted the constitution could not communicate their ideas effectively.
Millions of Chileans lost trust in the people writing the constitution, and even though they wanted change they didn’t want such extreme change.
Chile’s attempt at creating a new and progressive constitution failed. The change was too much and not communicated effectively. Rather than building a constitution that would be a compromise between different political ideologies, the constitution was mainly developed by progressive members with strong ambitions.
I personally think the ideas within the Chilean constitution are excellent – I am a big supporter of indigenous rights and I think we need to pay more attention to economic, social, and cultural rights. But I am also realistic – it is expensive and would require major changes that could cause social problems.
However, while Chile rejected this constitution, they will have more chances for new constitutions in the future. In 2020 they voted for a new constitution, and that means they will keep writing one until they get approval. The next draft will probably be written by more moderate members but will definitely keep some progressive elements.
What do you think? Would you have voted in support of Chile’s constitution? What kind of things should a constitution include?