The End of the Transition to Democracy in Chile

by | 14 Nov 2019

After the historic march in Santiago that gathered more than a million people, and of multitudinous marches in other cities and regional capitals, the sense of the protests that began more than three weeks ago and led the country to the most acute crisis since the return to democracy, has been crystallizing.

Above all, we must say that the crisis affecting Chile is not primarily the product of the subjectivity of a generation that transforms its perception of the world into objective truths and tries to impose them without deliberation on the rest, as the lawyer Carlos Peña, an influential Chilean columnist, said[1].  Rather, it is a constitutional crisis, in which the foundations of legitimacy that shaped and sustained the constitution that governs us since the dictatorship reached a boiling point that makes it impossible to restore them to their former state. This is a historic moment that represents the end of the transition, the decline of the legitimacy of the political and economic model imposed by the military dictatorship and in force to a significant extent during the last thirty years. Precisely because the solutions to this conflict cannot be found in the current institutional order, mere ministerial changes and social agendas that do not touch fundamental aspects of the Chilean political and economic model, which have been offered by the government in an attempt to attune with the citizenry, will be insufficient and could even be frustrating and counterproductive.

The constitutional crisis is expressed in at least two elements that are fundamental to this arrangement imposed by Pinochet. The first is what we might call the social constitution. The complaint that the people has clearly expressed in the streets is against a pension system based on individual capitalization and administered by private companies with enormous profits; against the exorbitant price of medicines offered by pharmacies that form cartels for that purpose; against the precariousness and segregation of our public education and health system; against the inequality between employers and workers in the processes of collective bargaining; against the structural inequity of our society and a weak, little progressive and meagerly redistributive tax system; against the privatization of such fundamental natural resources as water, environmental depredation and the creation of obscene zones of human sacrifice; against the violent, unrecognized and culturally crude way in which the State relates to indigenous peoples. In short, the crisis expresses a repudiation of the way in which the Constitution shapes social, economic and cultural rights. A system that, by commodifying social rights, ensures their satisfaction according to individual wealth. A system in which private property stands as a gravitational force that exorbitantly limits any possibility of political transformation based on solidarity and the recognition of the other.

The crisis is also expressed in the political constitution. Our current constitutional organization does not make possible to institutionally process the various demands to reconfigure the social order created during the dictatorship. Even though several of the most odious arrangements have disappeared, such as the appointed senators and a good part of the binominal electoral system, the rigidity of the Constitution and of multitude decisive laws that organize the political and economic bases of the Chilean model, plus a Constitutional Tribunal hypertrophied and vulgarized both by its configuration and by its practices, do not allow reforming the hardest core of the old regime against which today a good part of the country has risen. To this could be added other questions that are difficult to deny: a delirious political, administrative and financial centralization; an unjustified bicameralism if we consider that among us there is no chamber strictly attached to a territorial representation; a hyper-presidentialism that -as right now- does not allow us to tackle acute political-institutional crises with tools such as parliamentary dissolution and censorship of the head of government. Thus, this is a constitutional system that prevents the conduction of citizen demand and that has allowed the structural injustice inherited from the dictatorship (as well as from other long-standing Chilean tendencies) not to have been substantially corrected in more than thirty years.

The solution to a crisis of this nature must be on the scale of the crisis itself. Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt the capacities of a right-wing government such as ours to process these demands for structural change; although, it must be said, it is also convenient to blame everything on the right, since the centre-left governments that preceded it share responsibility. It is hard to imagine that a government still so focused on private property, even over other rights of greater relevance, so convinced that political stability implies keeping a series of economic dogmas untouchable, as well as the bulk of the current institutionality, is in a position to respond to a crisis of the depth in which we live today.

However, we must take fundamental decisions that will allow us to constitute a political settlement that is common to all. They require a constituent process, because both the social constitution and the political constitution referred to above refer to the formal constitution as their basis: the constitution is certainly not sufficient to address our collective conflicts and challenges, but it is strictly necessary. This is also and above all a crisis of fidelity to a pact that does not constitute but rather hinders life in common. What is interesting, and even therapeutic, about unleashing a widespread and organized constitutional discussion is that it would imply an exercise not monopolized by lawyers, economists or members of the elites, but led by the political community through its own self-reflexivity, an exercise of reconfiguration of our basic political structure and our fundamental rights. After all, the constitution of power, its conditions and limits is something that must be in the hands of the people themselves. Remember in this sense that The Leopard not only contains Tancredi’s famous statement (cynically referring to the struggles between the old regime and the Republicans during the Italian reunification): “if we want everything to remain the same it is necessary for everything to change”, but also includes that (previous and precious) exchange between Fabrizio Salina and his brother-in-law Màlvica that allows -something so necessary here and now! to underline the historicity of political decisions and forms: “‘but reason a little, Fabrizio […], a certain sovereign may not live up to the monarchical idea, but this, nevertheless, remains unchanged; it is independent of people’. This is also true; but it is not possible for Kings, who embody an idea, to descend for generations below a certain level; otherwise, dear brother-in-law, the idea also deteriorates”‘.

John Charney, Laura Mayer, Enzo Solari, Pablo Marshall

[1]  A sociological critique about his thesis of capitalist modernisation in Chile:


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