After resoundingly voting to write a new Constitution to replace the 1980 Pinochet-era Constitution, Chile voted to reject the first draft of the document. A well-funded misinformation campaign, combined with a lack of official information from the state, helped to defeat it.
On 18 October 2019, several hundred high school students stormed the Metro in Santiago, completely shutting down the Metro system. This event began a massive wave of protests, including a march that drew 1.2 million people, that would last for six months. It wasn’t until COVID-19 arrived that a stop to the social activism occurred.
While the protests were initially dismissed as the silly actions of teenagers over a miniscule rise in the price of public transport, they signified much more. They were about the 30 years Chileans spent waiting for justice for the crimes and human rights violations committed during the Pinochet dictatorship: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years.” They were about: the lack of humanity and dignity present in the current economic and political systems, the enormous income and social inequality these systems produced, and Chile’s poor-quality education. Most importantly, they were a rejection of the neoliberal economic approach that was prescribed as the solution to underdevelopment by the World Bank, the IMF, and the United States. Chile was a laboratory for neoliberal economic reforms under Pinochet, which created one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.
Sebastián Piñera was President at the time of the massive protests of 2019. Piñera had initially responded by insisting that “we are at war against a powerful enemy.” The enemy? Protesters, which, by then, encompassed people from all walks of life. Piñera sent the military into the streets for the first time since the dictatorship, supposedly as a means to keep order as the protests grew, along with declaring a State of Emergency that included implementing a curfew. A staunch conservative whose cabinet included several members who had directly worked for or supported Pinochet, Piñera eventually recognized that he needed to act to resolve the crisis. Criminalising the movement by declaring war on it failed, forcing his administration to shift focus. Piñera agreed to hold a public referendum on whether Chile should write a new Constitution, and how, as an “agreement for peace.” On 19 November 2019, the Chilean Congress authorised a referendum on whether and how to draft a new constitution. The toll from Piñera’s initial policy and massive state repression included 26 dead, thousands injured, and at least 405 Chileans with missing/injured eyes due to Caribiñeros intentionally shooting protesters in the eyes with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Accusations of torture and sexual assault by the Caribiñeros abounded. Chileans overwhelmingly voted for writing a new Constitution (79 percent), to be written by elected citizens, not the Congress.
This Constitutional Convention wrote the most progressive constitution ever proposed. Containing 388 articles, it would have acknowledged more rights than any constitution in history, including over a hundred provisions for rights to housing, education, food, sanitation, clean air, water, internet access, pensions, universal health care, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Despite the radically inclusionary nature of the document, 62 percent of Chilean voters rejected it. Why?
Composition of the Constitutional Convention and the Resulting Draft Constitution
One explanation is that the proposed Constitution was too progressive. It was written by a convention divided equally between men and women, with 11 percent of positions reserved for indigenous peoples. 67 percent of the delegates did not belong to any political party, and a wide variety of occupations and social classes were represented. Delegates belonging to right-wing parties only composed 24 percent of the body, and delegates from centre-left parties represented 16 percent. Chile’s left-wing parties won 28 seats (18 percent). The low representation of the right-wing parties meant that they lost their veto power in the assembly, as all decisions made required a two-thirds majority. Thus, the Convention was dominated by progressive members, although the complete range of ideologies present in Chile was represented.
The draft provided protections for indigenous populations in Chile (including autonomous territories and a parallel justice system), required gender parity in government institutions, claimed that Chile is a “plurinational country,” called for free education, free universal health care, decent education and pensions, decent housing and legalised abortion, and eliminated Chile’s Senate, replacing it with a Chamber of Regions. It also protected the environment and charged the state with duties to fight climate change and other environmental threats.
Once it was released to the public, a coalition of the Chilean right-wing, moderates, the centre-left, and corporate interests began a massive, well-funded disinformation campaign, staged mainly through social media and WhatsApp. Chileans encountered conflicting information on the contents of the document and how it would be interpreted and implemented.
The Disinformation Campaign
The right’s coalition constructed and funded a public relations campaign that convinced the poor that they would lose everything they had gained if they voted to approve the new Constitution. Claims that the government would confiscate the homes that they had worked so hard to buy, wouldn’t provide subsidies for buying new homes, and would not allow people to inherit property terrified the poor. Claims that abortion would be allowed up to the ninth month of pregnancy spread like wildfire. The right claimed that the new government would disarm the police. Detractors said defining Chile as a plurinational state would give Indigenous populations more rights than other Chileans. Rumours about Servel, the electoral authority, engaging in fraud to ensure approval of the draft, abounded. Claims that ballots were being marked by schoolchildren to stuff ballot boxes or that dead people appeared on the registered voter list to perpetrate fraud sowed doubt about the validity of the upcoming plebiscite.
While fact-checking sites were established, staff struggled to keep up with the spread of disinformation. Aided by re-tweets and posts by some government officials on the right, the campaign was enormously successful – many Chileans believed the false information they read on social networks or in WhatsApp messages. Politicians on the right and far-right enthusiastically spread rumours that the Constitution would change the name of the country, its flag, and its national anthem, among other untrue claims. The speed and volume at which misinformation was disseminated was simply too much for the fact checkers to counter quickly.
Additionally, the official information about the proposed Constitution consisted only of 30 minutes of TV coverage per day, which was evenly divided between supporting and opposing sides. The administration of Gabriel Boric, Chile’s current president, did not produce any ads for the campaign, nor printed materials. Some of the universities held informational sessions before the vote, however, the government itself did an incredibly poor job of informing the populace about the contents of the document. In fact, a few weeks before the scheduled vote, Boric stated that he planned to reform the constitution – before it had even been approved. This official statement likely added to the confusion the electorate had about the draft and what provisions it actually contained.
The disinformation campaign was enormously successful. Polling after the plebiscite indicated that opposition to the new constitution was strongest in lower-income municipalities in Santiago. These areas were crucial in rejecting the draft –they had higher turnout rates than the wealthy neighbourhoods. Exit polls indicated that many voters were confused about the vote – some noted that they believed they were rejecting the Pinochet-era Constitution.
Where to from Here?
Widespread agreement that Chile needs a new constitution still exists. Congress has been debating how the next draft should be written since the plebiscite. There are disagreements about who will participate in the process, whether delegates should be elected or should consist of elected members plus an advisory committee, and the timeline for the writing process. Congress has been debating these issues for over 11 weeks now.
Encouragingly, there is no question that a new constitution must be written – the people voted overwhelmingly to reject the current one and write a new national charter. When, how, and the procedural details are still being decided.
Leesa C. Rasp is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. She studies social mobilization and the Chilean student movement as an independent scholar in Santiago, Chile.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.