Overwhelming victory in the Chilean constitutional referendum: a blow to Piñera and the regime

A resounding majority have voted “approve” in the referendum on whether to change the Chilean constitution – which has its origins in the dictatorship – with a result of 78 percent against 22 percent who voted to “reject”. This is a victory that the working class is celebrating, and feels as its own. A year after the biggest-ever march in Chile, as part of a mass uprising, the people have been through a lot: repression, abuses, murder and maimings; as well as deception and media manipulations. Especially considering the pandemic, the record turnout of 50 percent is especially significant. But what does this victory mean?

The call for a Constituent Assembly represents a deeply-felt democratic demand, which expresses the desire for structural change and the rejection of the entire established order. For some, it is a step towards ending the legacy of Pinochet and the Constitution of 1980, which established the foundations of the so-called neoliberal model in Chile. It is also seen as the end of the “democratic transition” pact, which did away with the dictatorship, on the basis of impunity and the deepening of the capitalist system.

For the ruling class, the demand is seen as an opportunity for a “second transition.” That is, a new pact between the parties of the regime. All the media today are greeting the “festival of democracy", the “victory of the institutions and the rejection of violence.” Both the government and the ex-Concertación (the alliance between the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party) are coming out to celebrate “civic unity” and the “republican decision.” But in reality, this has been a slap in the face for the criminal government of Piñera, which is responsible for systematic violations of human rights; and also against the entire regime inherited from the dictatorship and administered by the Concertación governments. It is a resounding triumph for the masses, amid a climate that is rarefied by the agreement, the pandemic, the state of emergency and the curfew.

For us, it represents the return of the epic Chilean October rebellion a year ago, in which a general strike was organised and we saw the emergence of territorial organisations rooted in communities, which had the potential to become a new power of the working class, including the neighbourhood councils and assemblies, the Primera Linea self-defence bodies, the health brigades, the soup kitchens etc. A coordination of these types of grassroots organisations in neighbourhoods and workplaces could be the cornerstone for a genuine constituent assembly.

As we explained in our magazine América Socialista in February 2020:

“How different would it be if, instead of dialoguing with the regime in crisis, a great National Assembly of the Working People had been convened, carefully prepared in all territorial assemblies, self-convened organisations and trade unions? With delegates elected by the rank and file, recallable at all times? With broad discussions on all the issues of this Chilean uprising? About the insufficiency of wages and pensions? About free education? That flooded the national debate with ideas about educational projects and sports, a national health service, and the well-being of children and the elderly? That discussed how to fight male chauvinism and stop femicides? That debated art, culture and science, which are the height of concern for the youth? That shared experiences of self-organisation, self-defence and security? We could go on at length. And all of this could have taken place with the greatest freedom of debate of all the political tendencies that sympathise with the revolution.

“But instead of this, the parties of the regime want us to talk about peace, about the presidential elections – everything in order to channel the movement within the limits of the system, its institutions and the rotten status quo that we were accustomed to.” (‘The outbreak of Chilean October and the end of the transition’)

Results reflecting inequality between classes

The results show the two realities of the country. The class struggle is a pressing daily reality in Chile, where 1 percent of the population concentrates 26.5 percent of the wealth. While half of the population, who earn less than 350,000 liquid pesos, only have 2.1 percent of the wealth.

chile plebiscito 2Map by Maparaucaníamap

Rejection won only in five comunas (municipalities) out of 346 nationwide. In Las Condes, Lo Barnechea and Vitacura, Rejection won by 55 percent, 61 percent and 66 percent respectively. These are the comunas where rich people live.

The polarisation and division of the country, against which the media rails, in truth shows the disconnection from reality and isolation of a small minority that controls the lion’s share of economic and political power.

Ahead of the referendum, President Piñera changed his polling location from Santiago Centro, and instead went to his home address in Las Condes. Thus he avoided being funado (publicly shamed), as always happens at his public appearances. This is the same reason he made sure to vote early.

The other two comunas where the Rejection won are Antarctica and Colchane.

For its part, Approval swept through the working-class neighborhoods, receiving 86 percent in Maipú, and 88 percent in Pte Alto: the most populous comunas in the capital. The 89 percent refult is also notable in La Pintana: perhaps the most working-class comuna in Santiago. The list could continue with percentages of the same order, with Approval receiving above 80. For example, in Petorca, a comuna affected by water scarcity as a result of business looting, Approval obtained 90 percent.

chile plebiscito 3

Ten comunas, categorised as “zones of environmental sacrifice” (with high levels of polluting industries) had votes higher than 89 percent for Approval. For example, in Freirina, in the Atacama region, the vote was 92 percent.

Voters abroad also overwhelmingly participated in and supported Approval.

Indeed, Approval won in all regions of the country. In the North, the preference in some cases is above 85 percent. In Antofagasta, a very important port city and capital of the mining region of Atacama, known for its militancy and its grassroots organisations, 84 percent voted to Approve.

The Araucanía region is the only one where Approval did not exceed 70 percent. In Temuco, the regional capital, it obtained only 67 percent. This partly shows the disaffection of Mapuche indigenous communities from the constitutional process. But above all it expresses the fact that comunas in this region are bastions of the right wing, dominated by large landowners, businessmen, judges and racist police. This is a hardcore electoral base for the current right-wing government. It was, for example, a region where “Yes” won in the referendum of 1988 on whether Pinochet should extend his rule for another eight years (with “No” winning nationally). Taking this into account, the result in this region can be seen as a defeat for Pinochetism.

The Right and Approval

The government has been questioned for its management of the pandemic, during which it has enacted quarantines that preserve business interests foremost, and has placed the military in the streets. During the pandemic winter, the right wing was divided and without strong leadership. There were hunger protests, and the organisation of soup kitchens in poor neighbourhoods; together with massive mobilisations for pensions, against machismo and in support of the Mapuche people-nation. In July, the government was defeated over its attempt to withdraw 10 percent of pensions. On that occasion, the working class showed its teeth: the Dockers’ Union went on strike, and several other unions came out against the privatised pension system. It showed that the flame of the powerful Chilean uprising is still alive.

The government parties could not find a stable course to definitively defeat the movement, and at the same time co-opt its demands in the face of the constituent process. The president took a “neutral” position between the two options, although we know very well that he defends the current model: he is nostalgic for the dictatorship and is one of the richest millionaires in the country. He also ordered a change of ministers, which earned his top table the nickname the “Cabinet of Rejection", due to the markedly reactionary nature of some figures within it.

Some in the right wing campaigned for Rejection, in tune with their hardcore electoral base, and undertook a staunch defence of the current constitution. However, some sections of the right expressed a preference for Approval, but always from the perspective of safeguarding the interests of the ruling class. Some wanted to avoid presenting the plebiscite as an anti-government referendum, which would make it more difficult to sustain Piñera. By saying that they were in favour of Approval, they sought to establish a bridgehead and ensure their influence over the Constitutional Convention. They calculated that, at the convention, protected by the limits of bourgeois democracy, they can preserve the interests of the owners of Chile, even if they only have a minority of votes. This section of the right wing favours a pact between the parties of the regime: an agreement to demobilise the revolutionary energy of the streets.

The fight continues

We explained how a year ago that the Agreement for Peace and the New Constitution was above all a ruse to demobilise the masses. In panic, and fearing that the uprising would sweep away everything, the parliamentary opposition rushed to save Piñera. They granted a Constituent Assembly to try to get the people off the streets, especially after the general strike of 12 November. However, the Constituent Convention they designed has a limited character: changing everything so that nothing will change. The members of parliament (a body that had only 3 percent approval!) signed an agreement that maintains the controversial quorum of two-thirds for all decisions at the Convention (meaning a one-third minority will have the right of veto), and where the current congress oversees the constituent process. In other words, the Constitutional Convention is not a sovereign body, autonomous from other powers of the state. Also excluded from the process are 16-year-old voters, who through their courageous struggle sparked the uprising and have clearly earned a privileged place to participate in the national debate. Bourgeois democracy in all its forms seeks to establish channels that exclude the majority from genuine participation in politics.

But we must insist that the question here is not one of form, but content. And regardless of the technical arguments, the content is determined by the corrupt parties that make up this agreement behind the people's backs. The elections in this constituent process are not made in Workers' Assemblies, nor in Territorial Assemblies where the working class discusses and deliberates, but through a bourgeois-democratic vote in which citizens cast their lot on an individual and atomised basis.

Despite everything, the capitalists are worried. An article in Bloomberg noted that “many investors fear a new constitution means Chile will do away with the pro-business rules and fiscal discipline they say created one of Latin America’s most stable and prosperous economies.” The editorial for Chile’s main bourgeois paper, El Mercurio, warned: “the accumulation of expectations that have been encouraged regarding the constitutional change is evident [and is] much higher than what can be expected from a Constitution.”

They fear that, despite all the limits they have established to control it, the masses will use the Convention as a tool to fight against the regime and for a fundamental change of the economic system.

The festive mood will soon collide with the grey clouds of economic reality. It is estimated that across all Latin American and the Caribbean countries, GDP will contract by 9 percent in 2020. In Chile, unemployment in the third quarter rose to 12.9 percent. We have been set back years in terms of female labour participation, with serious consequences for the economic independence of women. There is discontent among health and education workers, who despite everything, are going to come out more united and determined to accomplish their demands. It will come as no surprise to see acute conflicts in the workplaces over conditions, wages and layoffs. The mega-drought and water shortages affecting communities will not be solved anytime soon. The nefarious institution of the police will continue to inflict abuses in Chile and against the Mapuche people. International events for their part will continue to ignite the revolutionary spirits of the youth and mobilised sectors of society. For working people, there are no stable solutions within the framework of capitalism, private property and national borders.

From now on, the debate on the contents of a new constitution will take centre stage. We must raise the need for a socialist programme and a workers' government. The protagonists of the October Rebellion, those who are made invisible – women, youth and the working class – have entered the scene of history en masse, and they feel that they are beginning to secure triumphs through their own hands. They will probably continue to mark their presence in the upcoming elections. But the main lesson of the Chilean uprising has been that we will achieve our demands only if we are organised and in the streets.

Marxists celebrate this victory alongside the rest of the working class, which must be interpreted as a rejection of Piñera and the entire regime. The masses have taken advantage of the plebiscite to express the historic demands they raised during the uprising a year ago. To achieve these demands, it is not enough to change the constitution: we must expropriate the multinationals and capitalists, sweep away the regime that serves their interests and put the economy and resources in the hands of the working class, to plan and manage them in the interests of the majority. We have won this battle, but the struggle continues. And this struggle must be waged both in the streets and in the electoral field of the constituent convention for the following:

  • Social rights guaranteed by the state: education, health, housing, pensions, jobs, decent wages, the right to water, environmental rights, reproductive rights, etc.
  • A guarantee of the principle of autonomy for native peoples. Put an end to the militarisation in the Wallmapu and free the prisoners who took part in the uprising.
  • Disband the current repressive bodies of the state (the Carabineros and armed forces) and replace them with neighborhood self-defence committees, and democratically elected and revocable popular militias.
  • Replace the judicial power and the state prosecutor with democratically elected courts and popular prosecutors. Bring those civilian and military officials responsible for crimes against humanity to trial.
  • To finance the great social transformations, it is necessary to nationalise natural resources (copper, lithium, etc.); large monopolies (paper, retail, the export sector); and multinationals, banks and other financial entities, and put them at the service of the development of the country on the basis of a democratic plan of production under workers' control.