Chile's Constitutional Convention: a triumph of inclusion

June 3, 2021

Women were protagonists; with 51% of all candidacies. Gender parity required that all lists were headed by a female candidate, with men and women alternating in equal numbers and gender equilibrium maintained at the district level.

In a historical election, Chile elected for the first time a Constitutional Convention to write a new constitution; the first such institution in the world to have complete gender parity by design: 155 members, 78 men and 77 women. It will be one of the most representative bodies in the country's history, not only due to this gender equilibrium, it includes 17 reserved seats for indigenous peoples elected in a parallel ballot. The average age of elected convention members is 45, at least six of them are members of the LGTBI community, many come from non-elite social and economic backgrounds, with a high presence territorially grounded leaderships, including environmental and feminist activists. 

The election was part of the constitutional process triggered by a cycle of social protest beginning in October 2019, when political forces reached an agreement and offered an institutional and democratic route out of the crisis. The process included an initial constitutional referendum to decide whether the current constitution should be replaced: 78% of those who voted supported a new constitutional text through a 100% elected body. The Convention will have nine months, that can be extended once for an extra three months, with a closing referendum.

The constitutional process has been received with great optimism by citizens in Chile, and many expected that the opportunity to replace the constitution, supported by most of the population would help boost participation. But the initial increase reached in last October’s plebiscite was not sustained in this last election: voter turnout dropped from 51% to 43,5%.

The constitutional election changed the political correlation of forces. Innovations introduced in voting procedures not only assured the unprecedented gender parity and collective representation of indigenous peoples, but the election of majority of independent representatives. As a result, the center-right governing coalition obtained 37 out of the 155 seats, the center-left 25, the left 28, while the remaining 65 seats went to independents. Over 40% of those elected in party slates are also nonmilitants.  

Women were protagonists; with 51% of all candidacies. Gender parity required that all lists were headed by a female candidate, with men and women alternating in equal numbers and gender equilibrium maintained at the district level. Seat allocation assured that the final result maintained gender equilibrium. In the end, women had such strong electoral support that parity favored 11 male candidates and only 5 females.

But women's success was not restricted to the constitutional election. Without gender quotas or parity in the other concurrent elections, women represented a minority of candidates running for governor (16%), mayors (23%) and municipal council members (39%), yet they managed important electoral victories, pushing for a significant  increase in female representation at the local level.

Notwithstanding the good news in terms of inclusion of historically marginalized groups, electoral participation continues to be low. The result once again evidenced that democracy in Chile confronts structural and deep-rooted challenges that need to be addressed systemically. As analyzed in UNDP Chile's recent report, Ten years of state of democracy assessments. Before the revolt, citizens classified as “democratic sceptics” increased from 25% to 43% between 2008 and 2018. This refers to people who show normative support for democracy but do not trust any of its key institutions. This one of the factors that has pushed a decline in participation well below the world average of 64,5%, particularly among the urban poor and youth.

The Convention marks a turning point for representative democracy in Chile. But this broadly inclusive body will have to draft a new constitution in a tense economic and social context. It has the mandate to simultaneously revise the role of the state in social provision and environmental sustainability; the country's political structure and distribution of power; civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights; the relationship and place of indigenous peoples in a multi ethnic state; together with an ambitious agenda for gender equality. It needs to do this in a short amount of time, with high levels of transparency and promoting citizens' involvement to maintain legitimacy and support. The success of the process rests not only on the ability to draft a text that will be ratified in the ballot box, but on which will be perceived as legitimate by a significant majority of the country; a new social contract where all people can feel included.