Chile's New Constitution is Dead in The Water | Opinion

Gone are the days of Chile being Latin America's oasis of tranquility. Since the 2019 "estallido social" protests rocked the country to its foundations, the South American nation embarked on the strenuous process of writing a new constitution. This emotionally fraught cycle will culminate on September 4, when voters decide the fate of the new document in a referendum.

Until recently, experts thought the newly minted Gabriel Boric administration would have little trouble midwifing the new constitutional text through the plebiscite. They reasoned that, fresh from his nearly 12-point victory against conservative José Antonio Kast in the 2021 elections, Mr. Boric would have enough political capital to sell it to voters.

However, the feckless performance of Boric's administration early in the term significantly damaged its credibility. The resulting distrust has been stiffened by a draft constitutional text, described as a "fiscally irresponsible left-wing wish list" by The Economist's editorial board.

In all likelihood voters will reject the proposed constitution and hold on to the current one—which opponents disparagingly term the Pinochet Constitution because it was promulgated in 1980 under Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, although substantially reformed since. Few would have predicted this outcome in March at the start of Mr. Boric's term.

While it is premature to perform a post-mortem analysis, I believe some of the reasons voters may amply reject the new constitution can be identified ex ante.

First, voters perceive the new constitution as a complete break with the exceedingly successful, albeit worn-out, Chilean model of free markets and strong property rights. While that break is precisely what supporters advocated for, most Chileans seem reluctant to hand the car keys to an administration that has proved to be as blind as a bat to the nation's problems, constantly prioritizing ideology over substance.

Chile constitution protest
People demonstrate against the draft of the new constitution in Santiago, on August 20, 2022. - Chile votes in a referendum on September 4, whether to approve the draft of the new constitution or not. Chile's constitutional convention, made up of 154 members who are mostly political independents, spent a year creating the new document to replace the constitution adopted during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship (1973-1990). MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP/Getty Images

Secondly, Chileans have been confronting a security crisis as dire as any the country has known for the past 30 years. The Araucanía region in the south has been under siege by militant Mapuche groups that employ terrorist tactics and have disrupted everyday life and commerce with attacks on property, arson, and killings.

As a candidate, Mr. Boric criticized the previous administration's state of emergency declaration and promised that he would not renew it, opting instead to pursue dialogue. The naiveté of this strategy was laid bare during the administration's first week when the motorcade of the interior minister, who was visiting the area, was interrupted by gunfire. With the violence getting out of hand, the government reversed course and reinstated the emergency declaration in May.

But it is not only the government's inability to deal with terrorism in the south that has soured Chileans' mood. Crime levels in urban areas are spiking, and the new administration has taken the bizarre position that the use of force by the police is almost always unjustified. Moreover, voters perceive high levels of illegal immigration as the culprit for the deteriorating situation and see the administration as unwilling to secure the border.

Lastly, a sluggish economy with inflation running at its hottest since the early 1990s has induced additional buyer's remorse on the new constitution. To make matters worse, the government intends to pour gasoline on the fire with a one-time cash transfer of roughly $120 to more than 7 million Chileans, with a price tag of $1 billion.

Initially, Mr. Boric successfully subdued market jitters by appointing the head of the central bank, Mario Marcel, as finance minister. However, the po-faced technocrat started to lose his luster when the peso's exchange rate sledded past 1000 per U.S. dollar, a significant psychological barrier, for the first time in July. Furthermore, despite Marcel lending his credibility to the administration, many in the coalition, especially the kingmaker Communist Party, have little patience for his fiscal responsibility discourse, and some expect him to be out of government before the end of the year. Having provided market assurances before the referendum, his usefulness to radicals after the fact will have expired.

It is evident that these variables are making the constitutional referendum a hope-versus-fear election, and the latter historically has the upper hand in electoral contexts. Surprisingly Mr. Boric's rosy rhetoric of ending neoliberal exploitation to usher in a brighter, more equitable future for Chile ran out of gas earlier than even his most fervent critics thought possible.

For now, it seems Chile might dodge this bullet aimed at its decidedly successful political and economic model. What happens after citizens reject the draft constitution is anyone's guess. Alas, the cloud of uncertainty over what used to be Latin America's paragon of stability and growth will not dissipate.

Martín Rodríguez Rodríguez is a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School and a former visiting research fellow at Atlas Center for Latin America.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.