By Camila Cociña, Ignacia Ossul Vermehren and Lieta Vivaldi
On Sunday 16th May 2021, Chileans elected the 155 citizens that will write the new Constitution. With the country voting in favour of a gender-balanced assembly, with indigenous and minority representation, we discuss what this latest development means for inclusion in Chile and the possibility for change and hope elsewhere.
How does a people collectively rewrite the trajectory of its own history? How does a people mobilise its differences to set up their own collective rules? How to write a “we” that has never been spelt out before? The people of Chile have started to recognise and build together their own “we”, one that is female, indigenous, working class, diverse, and is coming from places not usually in the spotlight.
What is happening in Chile?
The elections last weekend saw the latest development of a process of constitutional transformation that was triggered by the simmering social unrest that exploded in October 2019 across the country. As we discussed in a previous blog, in October 2020 Chileans voted in mass to overhaul the 1980’s Pinochet-era Constitution, determining that this new Constitution would be written by an assembly composed exclusively by elected citizens, half of whom would be women. Following this popular mandate, the poll on the 15th-16th May 2021 elected the 155 members of this Constitutional Convention, which will function for the next 9 to 12 months with the exclusive task of writing the new constitution.
New mechanisms for inclusion
The election of the members of the Constitutional Convention is a crucial milestone in a unique transformative national process, which has relied on social mobilisations, territorial organisation, political negotiations and agreements, formal democratic processes, violent contestations, resistance to human rights violation, and thousands of organised actions that have strengthened a collective sense of self determination. During the last decade, several processes paved the road and created the political conditions to promote renewed mechanisms for institutional inclusion. These events included social mobilisations around specific social justice agendas – including feminist mobilisations – as well as an attempt of constitutional change led by the previous central government (2014-2018), which involved self-organised local assemblies, and a rich public debate about potential mechanisms for the writing of a democratic Constitution. These processes only intensified after the 2019 social outburst, with the emergence and raise of countless local political instances in urban and rural areas, including spaces of discussion and co-learning, and territorial and feminist assemblies, which have’t been waned by the difficulties of the pandemic.
In a post-2019 scenario of political crisis, it became very difficult for the political class not to acknowledge the existing gap between the formal tools of political representation and the deeply democratic and diverse processes taking place across the territory. Then, the institutional arrangements for this Constitutional process agreed between November 2019 and March 2020, were pushed to incorporate several explicit inclusion mechanisms: The gender quota system, designed prior to the election, enshrined a historical agreement for gender parity of 50% both in the nomination of female candidates as in the elected ones; indigenous groups’ representation (7 Mapuche, 2 Aimara, 1 Rapa Nui, 1 Quechua, 1 Atacameño, 1 Diaguita, 1 Kawashkar, 1 Yagán and 1 Chango); and electoral mechanisms to allow independent actors outside political parties to be competitive in the election.
This is positive in at least three ways: First, it mirrors Chilean society more closely – women represent more than half of the population, and for the first time 10 indigenous groups in Chile are recognised and represented in a formal political process; second, it prevents the overrepresentation of white, upper class, heterosexual men that has been reproduced historically in other spaces of democratic decision-making; and third, it will allow the interests of women, indigenous groups and working class people – such as achieving recognition of specific rights that have been historically invisible – to have a better chance of being incorporated into the constitutional text.
Results: A more honest and plural ‘we’
Beyond the pre-established inclusion mechanisms – which had an indubitable effect in terms of the output – the results of May 16th presented a picture of Chilean society that no previous election had ever shown:
- Gender: As said, the gender quota mechanism was established both in terms of number of candidates, as in terms of elected members – in other words, entry and output This double mechanism was key to encourage political parties to present competitive female candidates. In the National Congress election of 2017, for example, there were already mechanisms to include at least 40% of female candidates, but this only translated into 23% of female representatives elected (see the analysys from Arce-Riffo and Suárez-Cao). By contrast, in this 2021 election women candidates performed better than men, and the correction instruments to ensure parity of output benefited more men than women, with eleven cases in which women had to give their place to their male co-runners in order to ensure equal distribution of female and male. As a result the convention is now formed by 78 men and 77 women. .
- Indigenous: Indigenous groups had 17 reserved seats, which constitutes an unprecedented mechanism of recognition in the country. The low turnout (22,81%) of indigenous people reflects that there is still a possible distrust in formal political processes and representation through institutional spaces. Among the elected (9 women and 8 men), there are emblematic traditional and spiritual authorities, such as the Machi (traditional healer) Francisca Linconao, who obtained the first majority of the Mapuche votes. Machi Linconao spent nine months in pretrial detention accused of terrorist activities in 2016, and was later acquitted of all the charges in a case that raised international concerns about the violation of human rights of Mapuche people by the Chilean state.
- Age: The new Constitution will be written by a relatively young assembly. The average age of the elected members is around 45 years old. Independent elected candidates are the youngest, with an average of 41, while the two traditional rightwing and centre-left coalition are the oldest with an average of 48 and 49 respectively.
- LGBTIQ+: There are at least 6 (3,9%) self-identified LGBTIQ+ elected members. There were 38 LGBTIQ+ candidates, two of which were transgender candidates but weren’t elected.
- Class and occupation: The social composition of the Convention is also significantly more diverse than traditional representational bodies. In Chile, as elsewhere, schools are a very clear proxy for class. While in the current Chilean Congress more than half (54%) of representatives come from paid private schools, from the 155 elected members; 49 come from public schools, 40 from publicly-subsidized private schools, and 43 from paid private schools – and most of them are not from traditional elite schools (see infographic here). Likewise, in terms of occupation, even if more than 60 of them are lawyers – as could be expected given the nature of the constitutional body – the second most common occupation is teachers (20) and the rest are distributed in 39 occupations that include activists, accountants, social leaders, environmental scientists, technicians, nurses, designers, journalists, housepersons, and so on.
- Progressive and grassroots forces: Finally, one of the main surprises of the poll results was the support to transformative and emergent political forces. Conservative ruling parties, under the “Chile Vamos” coalition, got only 37 seats – less than a third of the convention, which would have allowed them to block initiatives within the Convention; this is an important loss compared to the previous performance of the current president’s coalition, even if they collected significantly more financial resources for their campaign; the traditional centre-left parties, “Unidad Constituyente”, got 25 seats; this is less than the 28 seats gained by the newly formed left coalition “Apruebo Dignidad”, which includes the Communist Party and the emerging force Frente Amplio; the rest of the seats are distributed among independent candidates, 27 of which ran for the “Lista del Pueblo”, which grouped activist mobilised during the 2019 social outburst outside the traditional political system. As the table below shows, progressive forces of Apruebo Dignidad, Lista del Pueblo, and the indigenous seats had a significantly larger representation of elected women, with 68%, 67% and 59% respectively.
Opportunity for a truly transformative institutional process
The plurality of protagonists of this process – which are best captured by the diversity of the 155 elected members – opens up the possibility of recognising claims, struggles, knowledges and ways of living that have been historically rendered invisible by dominant discourses and practices, in a highly unequal and centralised country. At last, we see how a country full of complexities and particularities can be represented in their difference and not only by a white, middle class, heterosexual elite, that for years has impossed an absolute and “universal” thruth leaving behind the rights of so many people.
The possibilities of this transformative institutional process fills many Chilean people with hope. Getting here has only been possible through the articulation of complex processes of social mobilisation with political action. It has required active efforts and mechanisms to give space to the life experiences of sectors that have been historically discriminated against and excluded from traditional political spaces. This moment has been shaped by a combination of formal mechanisms and the grounded efforts of the people of Chile to articulate claims and voices in new and democratic ways. In doing so, it recognises the composition of the country as it is, and as it wants to be. In a context in which sisters and brothers are fighting for their rights and freedoms from Colombia to Palestine to Myanmar and beyond, we see in this unique experience a hope; one that shows the possibility of a change mobilised by the radical construction of a plural ‘we’.
 Chile will be the first country in the world that writes a Constitution with gender parity. This is possible due to the gender parity system established in the nomination (same number of men and women as candidates), as well as in the election, to make sure that the elected positions are distributed evenly between men and women.
Camila (Univeristy College London), Ignacia (University College London) and Lieta (Universidad Alberto Hurtado) are academics from Chile working on women’s rights, feminist theory, poverty, planning and urban equality.