Will Boric heat up with Chile’s new proposed Constitution?

  • Chilean President Boric sees a decline in popularity in first months in office.
  • Limited by Congress and a young cabinet, Boric has been unable to implement many campaign promises.
  • Boric looks for success in the voting of the new draft constitution in September to regain support.
Gabriel Boric
Fotografoencampana Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why is Boric’s temperature cooling?

Answer: Chile’s president Gabriel Boric has seen a decline in popularity amidst the comedown of the pandemic and unexpected pension reform. Now, he looks to the new draft constitution for salvation.

At the beginning of July, Chilean President Gabriel Boric was handed the first draft constitution since the 2019 student protests found the Chilean population mainly in favor of replacing the Pinochet-era document. The new constitution was the result of a ten-month drafting process by the 155-member Constitutional Assembly and is set to be voted on by the public in a plebiscite on September 4th. Replacing the current constitution was a major campaign promise of Boric during the 2021 elections and a strong aspiration of many Chileans since the fall of the dictatorship in 1990. 

Boric rode into office in March 2022, elected in November of last year as the youngest president in Chile’s history. A candidate proposed by the Social Convergence Party, his platform focused on addressing the socio-economic inequality pervasive in Chile with a promise to reform pension schemes, guide the country out of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as address levels of violence in the south of the country.

Since assuming office, Boric, who won the popular vote by 55.8% against Republican candidate Jose Antonio Kast, has seen his opinion ratings flailing. This has been largely attributed to his decision to repeal the COVID 19 stimulus package, his various policies on pension reform, as well as the slow progression of the initial drafting process of the new constitution. This resulted in the largest drop in opinion polls of an incumbent president in Chile since the end of the military dictatorship in 1990, rising to above 50% disapproval after his first 3 months in office.

The draft constitution that was proposed to Boric, while holding the potential to ameliorate some of his missteps, has been quite divisive among the Chilean population. Cause of much support and disapproval through its lengthy 388 articles, the document lays out a rather progressive set of initiatives that aims to transform the country through policies on social rights, gender, the environment and the political system itself. As September approaches, Boric looks to the constitution with the hope of a second chance for a strong first impression on the Chilean population.

What is changing Boric’s temperature?

Answer: Boric´s temperature was largely dampened by a lack of majority in Congress, a new Cabinet, and issues of violence in the South. Boric is hoping to heat up with the draft constitution proposal.

Without majority support in Congress, up until now, Boric has been unable to carry out many of his campaign promises. He has been blocked and forced to navigate the tricky socio-economic situation largely alone. In May, a $15 billion dollar drawdown was rejected by Congress and Boric was forced to unravel a Pinera-era pension reform that has left many Chileans without a security blanket.

This had led Chileans to ascribe their economic struggles to Boric as they feel that their economic situation was better off before he assumed office. In conjunction with the pressure from Congress to cut the COVID-19 stimulus package, these policies and tough decisions ended the commodity boom Chile was experiencing. As a country largely reliant on oil imports, this plunged Chile into a situation of high inflation (increasing food and energy prices) in early June.

Boric, much like his predecessors, has failed to address the systemic issue of violence in the southern part of the country. The Araucania and Biobio regions are home to violent outbreaks that impact core industries and cause tension with neighbouring states. In Boric´s first few weeks in office, Interior Minister Izkia Siches was shot during a state visit to the region. This has caused much belief that a largely new cabinet, seen as inexperienced, and Boric are incapable of dealing with some of the divisive issues that plague the country.

As such, the situation that Boric has inherited and the path that he has been forced to take in his first months in office has wholly undermined his popularity and approval ratings among the Chilean population. Thus, Boric placed a lot of pressure on the drafting of the new constitution to recover support. 

Although replacing the Pinochet-era constitution was a major reason for his election, recent polls tracking voting tendencies suggest that Boric should not be betting on the first round to be a success. This is because in 2019, following the student protests that initially placed constitution reform at the heart of the Chilean population, nearly 80% of Chileans supported the replacement of the current constitution. Unfortunately for Boric, now the majority of Chileans say they are likely to reject the proposed document for a number of reasons.

Some argue that the constitution lacks focus on economic policies that would bring about the economic stability that the country so desperately needs. This is especially after Boric’s election resulted in the immediate depreciation of the Chilean peso at a record low to the dollar, and a drop in the stock market. Others attribute their negative outlook on the constitution to the array of controversial clauses it includes, such as replacing the Senate with a regional chamber and creating a dual judiciary system for indigenous communities.

Given the outspoken criticism of the constitution, Boric has stated that he will go back to the drawing board if the current draft constitution is not passed. In this case, however, the largely left-wing and independent members of the Constitutional Assembly will be disbanded and a new drafting committee will have to be established. This could jeopardize the milestone of indigenous representation in the drafting committee, where they hold a total of 17 seats, and would definitely alter the contents of the document. It would also implicate the adoption of fundamentally new initiatives such as environmental policies, the protection of human rights, women’s rights and those of indigenous communities.

Ultimately, the adoption of this constitution would be a historic moment for many Chileans, making the vote in favour vital for Boric’s survival. It would help him regain support and legitimacy, paving an easier path for Boric to implement his policies. This is key as Boric continues to face institutional obstacles and opposition.

What is driving Boric?

Answer: Boric intends to remain in power in order to address socio-economic inequality and rid the country of the vestiges of neoliberalism.

Boric rose to power as a pivotal figure in the student protests that erupted in the country in 2019. As an outspoken activist, Boric helped lead the movement that created the opportunity for Chileans to vote in a referendum to replace the current constitution adopted in the Pinochet era in 1980. As such, Boric assumed office on the platform of replacing the Pinochet-era Constitution with an updated charter that would vastly change the institutions of the country and grant representation to groups across the board. Seeking to expand the portfolio of basic rights for citizens, Boric has sought to make this a reality as the current draft constitution attempts to enshrine these promises.

Coming from a background of political activism, upon assuming office, Boric vowed to rid the vestiges of neoliberalism and for his presidency to put market-oriented policies in the grave, as he argues that policies of previous right-wing governments have resulted in incessant economic and social inequality. Boric places expanding social spending and the role of the state at the centre of his social reform initiatives. His focus on the redistribution of wealth, power and representation was cause for much of the support he received when he ran for office.

In order to deliver on this promise, Boric needs to remain in power and so is looking to the adoption of a new constitution, whether this one or the next, to break the cycle of inequality and rid the country of the grip of neoliberalism. He aims to be “the president of all Chileans” and a man “to serve everyone.” As such, Boric doesn’t plan on stepping away anytime soon.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Boric’s declined popularity questions the viability of the left in Latin America and Chile as the region’s stable player. Similarly, the new draft constitution questions whether the country is ready for the change Boric hopes to bring.

Boric´s win was an important milestone in the political aspirations of the new wave of left-wing politicians in Latin America. This has been seen in the wave of elections of left-wing politicians in Peru, Mexico and Argentina and most recently in Colombia. Boric and other new left-wing leaders, such as Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro, have made it clear that they do not relate to the traditional left on the continent, and have been vocal in their opposition to extreme left-wing presidencies such as that of Venezuelan President Maduro as they seek to be the face of the new left.

While Boric aims to represent the re-branding of the left in Latin America, he has not managed to maintain the image of Chile as the beacon of economic stability on the continent. Boric has taken many missteps and faced multiple institutional obstacles in managing the country’s economy. As a result, Chile´s economy, previously quite strong, has seen a decline. Chile is the third largest contributor to the Latin American economy following Brazil and Argentina and a safe haven for much incoming investment on the continent. This means the decline in the country´s GDP growth rate from 11.9% in 2021 to 1.5% in May 2022, questions the stability not only of the Chilean economy but that of the region.

While Chile has lost face in this regard, other South American countries view the country as a regional leader as the plebiscite vote is approaching. This is because Chile’s proposed constitution looks vastly different to those constitutions that can be found in other countries on the continent. Very progressive in content, many believe that if the constitution were adopted, it would advance the protection of not only the rights of indigenous communities and women but human rights in general. Others look to it as a roadmap for the implementation of environmental and social policies on the continent.

On the other hand, if the draft constitution does not pass in the upcoming plebiscite vote, it could point to the fact that Chileans may not be ready for such a radical shift in the reformation of Chilean society, a trend that will likely be reiterated across South America. 

These differing perspectives will be debated, tried and tested in the plebiscite set for September 4th. In the meantime, Boric will likely have to make contingencies for the survival of his presidency such as how to regain legitimacy in the eyes of Chileans if the draft constitution does not pass the test. 

Arielle Combrinck

Research & Analysis Member