The mass protests that erupted across Chile in October 2019, triggered by high school students refusing to pay higher fares on the Santiago metro, evolved into the most extensive and important mass mobilization since the overthrow of the Pinochet dictatorship. The movement surprised outside observers as Chile had seemed to be (especially within a Latin American context) a stable parliamentary democracy as well as economically prosperous. The last major waves of protest had occurred in 2006 and 2011, when high school and later university students rebelled (with major popular support) against privatization and high fees, demanding free high quality education for all. [These student protests are covered in Vol. 2. H. 'Protests Against Government', H.1.a. Chile 2011-12].
Nevertheless, as the protesters themselves, as well as journalists and commentators, soon made clear, the revival of parliamentary democracy had not swept away all of Pinochet's legacy, or the continuing impact of key parts of his 1980 Constitution. At a political level the constitution still vested considerable powers in the presidency and also promoted the centralization of control in Santiago. But the most immediate cause of the protests was Pinochet's social and economic legacy: the neo-liberal ideology enshrined within the constitution, which deliberately minimized the role of the state in favour of freedom for business. For example, an earlier attempt to strengthen the Consumer Protection Agency by allowing companies to be fined was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Protection Tribunal. The protesters therefore rejected a system in which national prosperity overwhelmingly favoured the rich.
The coalition of social groups that joined in the protests included students, workers, women, the poor and indigenous peoples, as well as ideological leftists and feminists. Issues raised early during the demonstrations included high transport costs, the lack of proper old age pensions, and inadequate health care: the privatization of education, pension provision and health care was written into the Pinochet constitution. The protests were predominantly peaceful marches and rallies, though a minority engaged in serious rioting which was often highlighted by the media. The extreme violence used by the police, which led to at least 30 deaths and hundreds of injuries after the first month of protests, created a new source of anger.
The demonstrators also opposed many aspects of the political system: not only the ruling Conservative government, but the behaviour of many other political parties, which had led to growing political corruption since 2000. Scandals included business interests influencing policy through large donations to parties. Civil society bodies, including unions, with support from some political parties, sought to coordinate diverse demands into a unified policy. The result was pressure for a referendum to authorize the creation of a new constitution. This procedural approach, which the government decided it would be prudent to accept, was referred to the parliament, which formally agreed on 15 November 2019 to hold a referendum in April 2020 on whether to change the constitution. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic subsequently delayed the referendum to October 2020. Protests continued into 2020, a period of rising human rights violations in the country, culminating in a mass demonstration on the anniversary of the first major October protest in 2019.
The results of the referendum of 25 October were dramatic and led to widespread jubilation. The turnout for the referendum was 50.9 per cent (higher than for the recent presidential election) and 78.3 per cent voted in favour of a new constitution. Voters also had to choose between two kinds of constitutional assembly: one which was made up of directly elected representatives, and one which had a bloc of parliamentarians to balance those elected. They opted for a fully elected assembly. It had already been agreed that half of the assembly would be women.
The next stage in the process of constitutional change was the election of representatives to the constitutional assembly in April 2021, which took place at the same time as local elections and elections for regional governors. The turnout for the vote was low - just over 41 per cent of the electorate - but the outcome offered the possibility of significant change. The ideological leanings of those elected from political parties was well to the left, with most voters rejecting not only the usually well-supported conservative coalition (who gained just 24% of the vote), but also the centre left parties that had played a major role in post-Pinochet politics. They won less support than the alliance between the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio (set up by the 2011 student leaders) who jointly won 18 per cent of the vote. The largest group were the independents. A number of community leaders and activists were elected, as well as academics from varying disciplines and constitutional experts. Electoral adjustments were made to ensure the 50 per cent representation of women.
The constitutional assembly, composed of 155 members (138 elected and 17 representing different indigenous groups) had to agree on a draft constitution in 2022. For the new constitution to be valid it required the backing of two thirds of the delegates. Commentators suggested the 50 per cent representation of women and the role of indigenous groups should results in more legally protected rights for women and greater security for indigenous rights to their land and cultural inheritance. Others hoped for a move towards securing social and economic rights and a fairer society. The need for a two-thirds majority imposed pressure to compromise but might also allow groups to make support for their own priorities a prerequisite of a final agreement. The strength and duration of the popular mobilization in 2019-20 raised fears of serious violence or a possible military coup, but the election of a constitutional assembly appeared to have created a peaceful and legal pathway to political change.