AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Earlier this month, Chileans voted for the second time to elect a Convention tasked with writing a new Constitution. In a reminder that the left should be careful what they wish for, the Chilean right scored a stunning victory.
Conservatives won a total of 34 of the 51 elected seats, enough to submit their draft to the electorate without the support of any left-wing deputies. In an even more striking rebuke of the political establishment, the Republican Party of Jose Antonio Kast (which has been termed “far-right” by the international media due to its founder’s defense of aspects of Augusto Pinochet’s rule) won more than 35 percent of the vote, the highest percentage won by any single party in any Chilean election in more than sixty years.
The results were not merely a demonstration of a global realignment, but a warning to the anti-“constitutional” left around the world, especially in the United States, where Democrats and leftists continue to flirt with ideas of “court packing” or bypassing the fiscal authority of Congress by printing trillion dollar coins.
The Chilean elections showed that many voters who might be inclined to support liberal policies are opposed to attacking institutions in order to enforce those policies. In this case, the left conflated frustration with an unpopular right-wing government with support for a leftist agenda. They mistook unhappiness with the political establishment for sentiment to replace it with a left-wing revolutionary project.
The result was not only the collapse of the left’s political position, but a situation in which the institutions the left detests will have their power entrenched.
Replacing the Pinochet-era constitution has become a crusade for the Chilean left, even after amendments removed its more controversial elements. Much as with the American left, complaints about the way some aspects of the constitution function, such as the drawing of congressional districts or the electoral college, became indistinguishable from how those elements affected the electoral prospects of the leftist party.
At the same time, complaints about how the system failed to deliver policy goals leftists desired, even when those failures were the result of the left’s own electoral defeats, became conflated with the idea of original sin. Much as the American left has blamed their failure to enact stronger gun control laws on the U.S. Constitution rather than their inability to sway voters, in Chile, the failure to usher in a socialist paradise after the end of the Pinochet regime has been blamed on the constitution Pinochet left behind.
The irony is that the Chilean left has even less cause for complaint. Amending the Chilean constitution is relatively simple compared to the American one, and the Chilean right has generally been accommodating, arguably too accommodating, to demands for change.
For instance, provisions allowing senior armed forces personal, including Pinochet himself, to remain “Senators for life” were abolished in 2005, amnesties for events during the dictatorship built into the document were quietly scrapped, and perhaps most profoundly, in 2017, the binomial electoral system, which made it hard for either the left or right to win a large majority in the congress by making most districts have two seats, was also ended.
These amendments, rather than mollifying the left, only whetted their appetite for revolutionary change. For twenty-seven years, from the end of the dictatorship in 1990, the left had blamed the binomial electoral system for their inability to implement revolutionary change despite winning most elections in alliance with the center. In the first elections after the reform, the Chilean conservatives won the presidency and emerged as the largest party in congress. Conservative concessions to democratic principles served only to convince the left that their objectives were too important to be left to the democratic will of the people.
In the fall of 2019, mass social unrest, including protests, strikes, and sit-ins shut down the country. The Chilean left made no bones about their belief that this represented a revolution, and they aimed to overthrow the system. Rather than using force to uphold the constitutional order, conservative President Sebastian Pinera surrendered, promising a referendum on an entirely new constitution, which a special constitutional convention would draft from scratch rather than being amended by congress and approved by a three-fifths majority.
The only options presented to Chilean voters in the 2020 referendum were whether to call for the drafting of a new constitution, and between the model of convention proposed by the left or the right. Voters, who are not apt to think fondly of elected politicians anywhere, voted as expected both for the convention and the rules which excluded professional politicians.
The rules for the new convention were rigged from the start in favor of the left.
Pinera gave in to virtually all of the left’s demands. Rather than being freely elected, the convention would require a 50%-50% gender parity among delegates, and 17/155 seats would be elected by indigenous Chileans in a separate electoral process dominated by left-wing organizations. When elections were held, the right won 37/138 elected seats, and the center 10, which would have been enough to block a two-thirds majority without the indigenous seats. With those seats, the left controlled not 91/138 seats but 108/155, enough to force through their desired document, even with a few defections from more moderate socialists.
Even as the convention majority began its work, it became clear that it did not represent anything approaching a consensus of the Chilean people. Pinera’s concessions, rather than stabilizing the situation and strengthening the moderate left, had undermined the latter, and now seemed poised to see Chile move toward civil war. Jose Antonio Kast, previously a fringe figure on the right, saw his Republican Party surge against the traditional center-right alliance, and in the 2021 presidential elections, Kast came first with 28 percent of the vote, while the far-left student activist Gabriel Boric came second with 26 percent. The candidates of the former center-right and center-left came fourth and fifth with 13 percent and 12 percent respectively. While Boric defeated Kast in the runoff by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, the “convention majority” had won only 36 percent in the first round. That number would prove prophetic, as it is very close to the 38 percent who would eventually vote for the document the convention approved.
Rather than make concessions to the right and center in favor of a document that could pass muster, the convention ignored the results, drafting a monstrosity. Containing 388 chapters, it declared Chile a “plurinational” nation with an “ecological character,” and a “welfare state” with rights to neurodiversity, sex education in schools, sports, and “digital connectivity.”
It also included quotas for all parties at all levels to run “sexual and gender minorities” as well as to make electoral lists headed by women. When submitted to the electorate in 2022, it was rejected 62 percent to 38 percent.
Chastened, but perhaps not enough, Boric insisted on a second constitutional assembly. This time the right drove a tougher bargain, limiting its competency, removing the indigenous seats, and ensuring that 24 of 75 seats would be appointed by congress, with twelve each from the government and opposition. The left, apparently concluding that the error was not their objectives, but that not enough people voted, made voting mandatory. The result was a fiasco.
Seventeen percent of voters spoiled their ballots. Of those who voted, 35.4 percent voted for Kast’s Republican party, an increase of 7 percent over his first-round result in 2021, while 21 percent voted for Pinera’s old center-right coalition.
By contrast, the left-wing alliance won 28 percent of the vote. Kast’s party won 23 seats, which, when combined with the 11 won by the center-right and the appointed members, provides for a 46 to 29 majority, above the three-fifths margin required to submit a document to a referendum.
It is unclear what they will do with that power. Whatever document they will produce will still need to win a majority, and the results of the left’s efforts indicate the electorate will not approve a partisan document. Boric and the left, changing their tune from the previous assembly when they ignored the center-right minority, have called on the “democratic right” to cooperate with them. It is hard to see enough of them joining with the left to pass something over the objections of the Republicans.
At the very least, the results mean the Chilean left’s long constitutional obsession is over. They will either have to campaign for a new document written with the support of virtually the entire traditional Chilean center-right, or in defense of the existing, amended Pinochet constitution they have denounced for decades.
What is stunning is the resignation with which they have greeted this result. For decades, their response to setbacks has been increased extremism, driven by a conviction that if they upped the ante, this time it would work. Instead, there seems to be a recognition that it is the end of the road, and that they will have to work within the existing system for whatever they can get, and furthermore that they should be extremely grateful for the protections of the existing system.
The American Left might benefit from a similar reflection. Over the past two decades, “wokeness” has been driven by a worldview which pits America – its constitution, its culture, and its history – not against the alternatives it faced in the real world, but against a fictional ideal that left wingers have come to believe is only kept out of being by the existence of the current America.
The American left views the U.S. Supreme Court as illegitimate not by comparison to a world with no court, or even an elected one, but rather an alternate universe court which exists in their heads and is filled with left-wing academics. They conflate gun control laws with magic spells which would snap illegal firearms out of the hands of criminals as well as law-abiding citizens. They believe they represent a silent majority, suppressed by gerrymandering and a corporate media, despite the fact that the left now dominates virtually every major cultural and governmental institution and has for decades.
As Sebastian Pinera found in Chile, this worldview cannot be reasoned with, nor can compromises be achieved with it. Because it does not exist in the real world, its activists are incapable of bargaining in good faith even if an occasional leader has a moment of lucidity.
There is almost certainly a case for judicial ethics reform, including of the Supreme Court, but it cannot be discussed with those who believe Merrick Garland should be a Justice of the Supreme Court, yet Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett somehow should not. There also probably should be some ground rules set for vote-by-mail, the drawing of electoral districts, and who can do what with each, but not by people who believe that “fairness” is just another word for whatever means are necessary to keep them in power.
If this worldview cannot be reasoned with, the bubble can be punctured by events. The 2016 election failed to do so, but it seems possible that another defeat in 2020 would have done much more for the Democrat Party than the incoherent “victory” they achieved. At the very least, it would have provided a popular mandate for Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment, and retroactively for Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, forcing liberals to recognize the reality of the Court, even if they do not like it.
It took several defeats for the Chilean left to get this message. That was because many Chileans did like a number of their policies, much like there are some policies where a number of voters prefer Democrats. But just as the Chilean left needed to learn that support for same-sex marriage or higher taxes on foreign companies does not translate automatically into support for a new constitution enshrining those policies, so too do Democrats need to learn that 64 percent of voters opposing the overturning of Roe v. Wade does not imply anywhere near that number favor destroying the Supreme Court to restore it.
When this realization comes, American politics, much like in Chile, will begin to head in a healthier direction.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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