When Chile’s rejected constitution was drafted, the country looked to Switzerland for ideas on direct democracy. The rejected constitution was to replace the one used since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which had ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990.
In October 2019, large swathes of the Chilean population took to the streets to protest against the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera and the neoliberal economic system. Despite the use of massive force and human rights violations, the government was unable to stem the demonstrations.
Soon, many people were demanding a new constitution, as a way of re-founding the country with more social rights and greater democratic participation. On November 15 of the same year, a broad coalition of deputies finally decided to launch a constitutional process.
In a referendum in October 2020, the Chilean people tasked a specially elected Constitutional Convention with drawing up a new basic law. Many delegates were particularly concerned with strengthening democracy, decentralising the state and easing coexistence between the various indigenous peoples and Chilean majority society.
The new constitution would have given more power to the people, through mechanisms like referendums and recall elections. The country’s 16 regions would have been granted significantly greater autonomy than they had previously enjoyed (rebalancing state vs region). A “Chamber Of Regions” was proposed which would have provided an institution similar enough to the Swiss Senate. However, it was rejected by 61.9% of voters in a referendum on 4 September 2022.
Perhaps the proposed constitution was just too ambitious? Many opponents feared that the provisions promoting expansion of the welfare state went too far. The neo-liberal current affairs magazine The Economist wrote of a “wish list” by left-wing politicians that could not be funded within the national budget.
Critics also highlighted t the length of the constitution (388 articles), The new basic law’s feminist and indigenous proposals also also alarmed some parts of a still conservative society.
Despite this setback, the movement for direct democracy in Chile is still alive. President Gabriel Boric is a former student leader who has campaigned for increased democracy in Chile. And while the rejected constitution would have enshrined a record number of rights, it is still possible that some of its provisions will be implemented in the future.
In the meantime, Chile can look to Switzerland for inspiration on how to make direct democracy work. Switzerland has one of the most robust systems of direct democracy in the world, and has been using it successfully for centuries.
So what can Chile and our own nation (the UK) learn from Switzerland about direct democracy? First, it is important to have a system that is well-organized and easy to use. The Swiss system is very user-friendly, with ballots that are easy to understand and instructions that are clear and concise. Second, it is important to have a system that is well-funded. The Swiss system is supported by a network of volunteers who help organize elections and ensure that everyone has access to information about the voting process. Finally, it is important to have a system that is respected by the people. The Swiss system enjoys broad support from the population, and this helps ensure its stability and longevity.
Switzerland’s system of direct democracy provides a valuable model for Chile as it moves forward with its own journey towards increased political awareness and empowerment. It should also provide inspiration for those of us in the UK who want to address our democratic deficit and move to a more cohesive and fairer society.
By Patrick Harrington
Gobierno de Chile, CC BY 3.0 CL https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/cl/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons