When Chileans poured into the streets on December 15 to celebrate Michelle Bachelet’s landslide victory in the presidential run-off election, vendors popped up out of nowhere, peddling flags to wave at the victory rally: Myriad purple or blue options hailing “Michelle Presidenta!” and “Chile de todos”; a big red one for the Communist Party proclaiming “100 años de lucha”; the bright multicolored banner of the indigenous Mapuche people. There were two Socialist options—one commemorating the iconic musician Víctor Jara, murdered in the first days of the Pinochet coup of 1973, another promising that “the dream of Allende lives!” and quoting the overthrown president’s famous last speech, in which he promised that the streets would one day again be filled with free people building a better society. And here they were: thousands cheering president-elect Bachelet as she acknowledged Chileans’ decision to address the nation’s “unfinished business” and “begin deep transformations.” Soledad Falabella, director of ESE:O, an NGO promoting democratic literacy, and a professor at the University of Chile, looked up at the sea of flags and soaked in the jubilation. “At last,” she said, “the chains of Pinochet are broken.”
Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Chile’s return to democracy, but this election—and, especially, the movements that burst into the streets in 2011 and made Bachelet’s progressive platform possible—represent the paradigm shift that genuine democracy requires, activists say. Nothing has heralded this change more resoundingly than Marca tu Voto AC, a citizens’s mobilization that took shape around the elections, calling on voters to write the letters that stand for Constituent Assembly onto their paper ballots, thereby demanding a participatory process for creating a new constitution. The campaign has been remarkably effective as both direct and symbolic action.
Chile’s constitution dates from the Pinochet years and was engineered not only to guarantee ever-lasting disproportionate power to the right but also to entrench neoliberal economic policies, and even to prevent legislative changes to them. Though the constitution has been revised many times over the last two decades—patched up with more than 200 amendments, according to the Chilean legal scholar and Rutgers law professor Jorge Contesse—its internal mechanisms, established by the “technocrats of the dictatorship,” he explains, “prevent channels for the majority to express itself or for just laws to be passed.” Chief among its obstacles to genuine democracy is the unique binomial system of elections: for congressional seats, candidates from multiple parties typically run in each district, and the two highest vote-getters win office, which almost always means high representation for the minority right-wing parties.
But some of the less obvious impediments to democracy are now fully on the agenda, too, thanks to the social movements of the last couple of years among students, environmentalists and residents of the provinces, which brought mass demonstrations into the streets for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1990. The inequities for which these movements have been demanding redress are tied to provisions in the constitution.
As Contesse explains, “The junta wrote all those lofty words” in the constitution’s Article 19, affirming Chileans’ right to equality, freedom of expression, privacy and so on, “but didn’t put any mechanisms in place to guarantee them except for economic liberties”—rights to choose which school to send one’s kids to, which doctor to see, where to invest one’s pension, but no right to have an education, healthcare or pension. In other words, he says, freedom “for those who can afford it.”