1. Okay, here is a brief thread on Chile. As you know, there have been widespread protests in recent days, driven primarily by economic inequality (Chile is one of the most unequal countries in the world). Counter-intuitively, at the root of this inequality is the Chilean Constitution. The Constitution was drafted in 1980, as part of a transition from military to civil rule.

2. The only problem: the drafting of the Constitution was entirely under the control of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had come to power in 1973 in a violent, US-supported military coup, overthrowing the elected socialist President, Salvador Allende. Among other things, Pinochet was advised by economists from the University of Chicago ("the Chicago Boys"), and implemented extreme neoliberal policies.

3. The 1980 Chilean Constitution reflected both the imperatives of militarism as well as neoliberalism. It provided extensive powers to the military to "intervene" in democracy, and also made social reform legislation constitutionally impossible. As this article says: "It’s about 30 years of an economic model elevated to the level of constitutional principle."

See also:

4. The interesting part about this is that most Constitutions don't prescribe an economic model. They guarantee civil rights, but leave questions about the economy to governments. Recall that in India, during the framing of the Constitution, many people wanted to enshrine socialism into the text of the Constitution; Ambedkar pointed out that economic models changed generation to generation, and it should be the task of elected governments to decide economic policy.

5. In Chile on the other hand, neoliberalism was elevated to the level of a constitutional principle, making it extremely difficult to dislodge. Thus, even after the end of the dictatorship and the departure of Pinochet, the Constitution acted as a break on what progressive governments (such as that of Bachelet) could achieve.

6. For this reason, unlike in many other countries, many Chileans see the Constitution not as a charter of freedom, but as an impediment to it. This brings us to the 2019 protests.

7. After widespread protests, the Chilean government has agreed on a process to do away with the Pinochet-era Constitution. If you read Spanish, you can read the draft agreement here (I'll translate the gist):

8. Basically, the Agreement says that in April 2020, there will be a yes/no referendum on the Pinochet-era Chilean Constitution. If a majority votes to abolish that Constitution, it goes.

At that point, a process will be put in place for a new Constitution. The people will vote for the form that the Constituent Assembly will take - direct elections/50% representation of political parties etc.

9. That process is due to take place in September 2020. Then they will move ahead with the drafting of the new Constitution.

Of course, the April 2020 referendum is the big roadblock. If a majority approves the Pinochet Constitution, then the process ends right there. And as Brexit has shown us, referendums are unpredictable.

10. But if they get past that, then things will get really interesting and exciting. An opportunity for a fresh start, and a new Constitution - written in the economic and social climate of 2020 - will be fascinating to watch.

- fin -

@gautambhatia fascinating summary.. on a related note, do you think referendums are a robust and dependable method to gauge public sentiment? Or are they a fleeting snapshot of a dynamic metric, susceptible to political maneuvering like we saw in Brexit?

@prithul This is a good question. I have a Colombian colleague who is very nervous about the referendum being part of this agreement - a potential trap by the government. But at the same time, look at the South African Constitution, whose provisions were put to a referendum - which helped enshrine its democratic legitimacy So it's a tough question.

@gautambhatia @prithul Did the USA constitution was also put for public approval in some way?

@Prahlad @prithul LOL no! The US was a society of slaveowners at the time.

@gautambhatia @Prahlad @prithul fascinating thread. I had read the chilean constitution and some of the changes but not the viewpoint you bought to the fore. FWIW, civil rights was something the African-Americans fought for. See the which seeks to put summations right what has historically been seen only as a north-south American issue.

@Prahlad @gautambhatia @prithul I don't know about the US Constitution, but in many US elections, alongwith leaders, propositions get out up for bring voted. If a proposition gets majority votes, it becomes law or comes into being.

@ashwin_baindur @Prahlad @prithul In State elections, yeah. That sort of thing can work both ways, though. California once passed a Proposition that would have allowed racially restrictive covenanting (i.e., white property-owners entering into agreements not to sell to black buyers). The US Supreme Court had to strike it down on the ground that it violated the federal Constitution.

@gautambhatia yes there's two opposite, but equally defendable arguments to this. In my limited understanding though, referendums work in the basic assumption that the electorate is sufficiently informed on the subject in question. However, if you have an under-informed or misinformed population... things tend to get messy.

The same can be said of democratic elections in general, but the outcomes of those aren't as black and white as referendum yes/no questions.

@gautambhatia @prithul

The biggest factor that will tilt the tide with be how much the 'majority' tilt as a fundamental understanding of 'democracy'.

@gautambhatia @prithul I think Switzerland provides the best model for referendums, I've heard they're frequently conducted there. Their model of having largely independent cantons seems to allow for this, but Swiss opinion on the Brexit mess seems to be that 1. Adequate info was not communicated and 2. That yes/no was extremely reductive for such a complex question.

@RP @gautambhatia yes exactly. Swiss governance in general is a model on how public opinion is imbibed into decision making itself. But for larger, more diverse populations I'm not sure if it can be scaled up (for want of a better word).

@prithul @RP See also the Irish model of Citizens' Assemblies. It's how they managed to wildly shift public opinion on social issues within a generation. I would link to some Irish experts, but unfortunately they are all on the Bird Site.

@gautambhatia @RP would love to hear more on that. Any links to lit sources would be appreciated (birdsite included)

@gautambhatia thanks for the thread. Does Chile have a provision for legislative amendments to the constitution? If yes, wouldn't that be a more defendable, albeit tougher, alternative to something as drastic as a referendum?

@Saivadla They require super-majorities for certain kinds of economic changes even through legislation. And the Chilean Court has explicitly stated that the Constitution is not "neutral", but tilted towards neoliberalism - and must be interpreted as such. That basically makes a replacement imperative - it's like a Constitution that is future-proofed against reform. The closest analogy would be our 42nd Amendment - think of an entire Constitution structured like that.

@gautambhatia Why is it called neoliberal if essentially the military had extensive powers and I assume controls over the market?

@samsiss The military could intervene - that was the military part of the Constitution. The neoliberal part was that it made economic reform legislation constitutionally more difficult, and the Court interpreted the Constitution explicitly stating that it was slanted towards neoliberalism.

@gautambhatia Thanks for the reply. Speaks volumes about Ambedkar's vision that has carried us so far. Why are the Chileans so aggrieved though, they should look at India and understand that the book does not matter in the long run! ;-)

@samsiss @gautambhatia that's not right to say, imho. Our Constitution suffers from the defects inherent to all democracies, that they permit those who who wish to dismantle it to come to power and use the provisions of change to dismantle democracy instead of improving the legal position.

@ashwin_baindur @gautambhatia Sir, you probably missed my wink emoji at the end. I agree with what you are saying. My point was that the book itself is a precondition but not sufficient for a democracy if there is a lack of commitment to it.

@gautambhatia is there any plausible situation when constitutional questions can be subjected to a referendum in an Indian setting? Also is there scope for any kind of a referendum in India?

@gautambhatia Thanks for this thread Gautam. Really informative this is :)

@gautambhatia Amazing thread! Were the powers which were granted to the military continue to persist today or have they been taken away via an amendment or something else?

@gautambhatia Extremely educative thread, thanks. Were there
specific conditions in Chile which required USA to code neo liberal agenda into the Constitution rather than using the usual reforms route? Has this model been implemented in any other nation?

@gautambhatia Sir are there any specific criteria based on which you reply to toots/questions? Not being hateful, just wanted to know for the future

@titasganguly @gautambhatia I don't remember all the details but do remember a constitutional amendment I had read in some countries where couple of American companies were given exclusive rights for 99 years to sell to their citizens. The citizens were dis-allowed or it was illegal to even have water from the natural rains occuring. It ook number of years before it became international headlines and they had to give self-sufficiency back to citizens. 1/n

@titasganguly @gautambhatia I'm sure with the info. I shared, if you google it or use whatever search-engine you probably would come to know more. If you do, please share the same here so it enriches everybody :)

@gautambhatia succinct explanation of what's happening in Chile. Lovely thread. All tooters, do boost.

@gautambhatia Recollect a paper of yours about PUDR and minimum wage and court's view that market based inequalities should be alleviated. The court relied on a quote by socialist Ambedkar. How different is that from this? Courts still invoke 'welfare state' idea to read Acts in a certain way.

@amlanmishra Constitution has two or three socialist provisions (e.g. Article 23). That doesn't make it a socialist Constitution.

@gautambhatia Interesting summarisation of the issue. I’ve been following this on my local WBAI radio channel but this really filled a lot of holes since I was too lazy to figure out the story of protests. What about Lebanon btw?

Thanks @gautambhatia for investing time in crystallising the logic in your thread and of course for sharing


Great thread.

I’d be vv nervous on the referendum, btw, the Chilean authorities will take all means necessary to preserve their powers granted by the current constitution.
Sign in to participate in the conversation

Server run by the main developers of the project 🐘 It is not focused on any particular niche interest - everyone is welcome as long as you follow our code of conduct!