Boric’s future is at stake in the Constituent Convention

Ricardo Israel.

Outstanding is the case of Gabriel Boric. In a decade he went from being a student leader to president of Chile, from street protest to La Moneda. He competed because he was the only one in that generational group who met the minimum age, a candidacy that had also been rejected by several national figures. He overcame several obstacles, as he only managed to gather the necessary signatures very shortly before the legal limit and with much controversy. He won the primary against the communist rival, where he was granted only a testimonial role and, finally, came second to the right-wing candidate in the first round of the presidential election. It has been a personal success, but also the result of a cultural transformation, which preceded the electoral victory, and a generational ascent that coincided. The success had also been collective, with a Broad Front, much more like the Spanish Podemos than to the Uruguayan of the same name, also sharing with the Iberians the ideological influence of Ernesto Laclau.

Once elected, he has enjoyed a real honeymoon with well-known liberal and progressive media in Europe and the United States, which have forgiven him even the personal anti-Semitic attitudes and those of his political group. For its part, the Chilean press has given him a better treatment than all those who preceded him, even with a television dose of soft cult of personality, unprecedented in democracy.

However, it is most likely that the legacy and fate of a government that has defined itself as a continuation of the work of Salvador Allende, does not depend so much on what he does and does not do, as on what happens in a place for which he was not elected, which is the Constitutional Convention.

Its own management will be marked by enormous expectations and a series of contradictions, still unresolved. The first is internal to his government coalition, and is between his Broad Front, exponent of the new Latin American progressivism and the Communist Party of centennial roots, and representative of the more traditional left. It is also seen in the present tension between utopia and realism, between the temporary and the substantial, between novelty and what is destined to endure. The rigidity of what was promised versus the unforeseen that appears to any government, as happened to Piñera with the earthquake of 2010 and the street violence in October 2019. The dialectic of immediate and necessary popularity to carry out the changes it proposes versus long-term structural changes.

Let us remember what happened to Bachelet in her second term, where the strong electoral support for her reform program became a sharp decrease in support at the end of the term, so much so that it allowed the return of Sebastián Piñera to government. In a context of normality, many problems and solutions may depend on the government, but in Chile an uncertainty factor is added, generated by something much more relevant than a government that has a start and end date. We talk about the constituent process, called to design the rules of the game, at least for several decades.

If the itinerary is maintained, this Convention should end its mandate on July 4, so that its proposal for a new constitution is plebiscited, probably in September, and if approved, it would be the beginning of a deep refoundation of Chile, and the beginning or consolidation of the transformations proposed by Boric. If it is rejected, the current one is maintained, the one that depending on who is asked, is that of Pinochet (the one of the 80s) or that of Lagos (since it bears his signature since 2005).

And this is also because Congress is tied, and almost everything proposed by the new president needs legal or constitutional changes. That is the link that unites Boric with the constituent, and the defeat of this would also and predominantly be that of Boric.

The problem for the new president is that he has pledged not to interfere in the functioning of the Convention, and it is expected that given the tie that exists in Congress, there will be no major legislative developments until the exit plebiscite takes place. Boric’s difficulty is that the election of 155 constituents delivered an unprecedented result, with many elected representatives who are to the left of him and with a diminished presence of the Social Democratic and Social Christian coalitions, and of the right, that is, the forces that alternated in power the last 30 years. In other words, there is today a majority for a very radical refoundation of what has become known as Chile.

With Boric a sensibility triumphed more than an ideology, and that is an important differentiation, since in the constituent predominates a simplification of an unjust, unequal country divided between good and bad. What has already been approved by two-thirds of the Convention, is a reminder of the damage that has done to the country, the erroneous idea of its “exceptionality”.

For the previous generation, it was the idea that in Chile there were no coups d’état until Pinochet came to prove that it was not true, and for the last decades it was the idea of the solidity of political and economic institutions, which was proved wrong because they were unable to resist the turmoil created by street violence.

In fact, the public debate is no longer dominated by the idea of development, to imitate either Finland or New Zealand. Today at least in the Convention, Chile is seen more in relation to the Latin American experience, be it decentralization to the Peruvian mirror, indigenist (without the population percentages) to the Bolivian or the market to Argentina.

One important problem is that the Constitutional Convention shows great experimentation, not only norms that have no basis in the Chilean constitutional tradition, but as the word indicates, norms that have not been approved before in other countries.

A postmodern constitution is appearing, since perhaps for the first time there is innovation in the sense that rights become dependent on the identities of people, on their membership in certain groups rather than their citizenship. This is what happens with the justice system, in which the notion of a judiciary based in a Supreme Court disappears, to give way to a system where instead of one, 10 or 11 coexist, depending on the ethnicity to which one belongs. This proposal goes beyond other national experiences, which had been much more limited and under the authority of a single system. What emerges in Chile is a legal pluralism where all of them have a similar place. And it is in this sense that the notion of equality before the law is modified.

In other words, the idea of refounding Chile has made the notion of the possible move to a new stage, to the point of making the new norm almost unrecognizable. Institutions that were born in the origins of the country as an independent nation, are deconstructed and demolished, as is the case of the Senate and others.

It is a constitution that does not seek to be everyone’s home, but to concretize a utopian vein, where rights are granted with a level of detail unbecoming of a fundamental law, rather it is legislated as if it were a new parliament. A majority that is demonstrating that it can reach 2/3 for materializing the idea that it is writing on a blank page.

For Boric raises the real problem of how the promised reforms or the rights granted by the new constitution, will be financed. In a mining country, the idea of nationalizing foreign investments implies at least US $ 65.000 million in compensation and another US $ 50.000 million to operate them until 2030, if there are not many lawsuits, since there are more than 500 investment treaties with other countries. In addition, there is a context of having a lot of unexplored lithium and a rising copper value, given their importance for the energy transition.

The so-called Latin American “adamism” is strongly present, the idea of always starting or restarting from the beginning, and without much consideration for financial or technical feasibility. In other words, enthusiasm is not enough, since not every desire is a necessity or every need a right. The danger for Boric is that the Convention has acted rather at the service of agendas, with special emphasis on identity, and victimhood, where the search for privileges is also presented in the name of rights, but the key argument is that still today the new constitutional rights can defeat the rejection in the exit plebiscite, as probably the narrative will be the future against Pinochet.

The president and the Broad Front have their own problems and a relevant sector of the country is bothered by the image that history starts with them, that before (almost) nothing would have been done and above all, the discourses of political correctness and the moral superiority. In any case, Boric can influence the Convention in multiple ways since it needs the triumph to fulfill what was promised, and rejection would be his defeat, but it is not clear he will do it.

For Boric the ultimate test will be preventing the weight of expectations from turning into frustration.

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