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Bachelet Appoints Group to Study New Constitution for Chile

Claudia Heiss, Instituto de Asuntos Publicos, Universidad de Chile

On April 23rd former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), the front-runner candidate for the November presidential election, announced a commission to study a new constitution. The group is composed of nine lawyers (including two women) some of whom contributed to the 2005 reform signed by Bachelet’s predecessor Ricardo Lagos. That reform eliminated some of the most ominous institutional enclaves of the Pinochet dictatorship, like the appointed and for-life senators, and the political role of the armed forces through the National Security Council.

The center-left coalition that ruled the country from 1990 to 2010, the Concertacion, had been reluctant to replace the 1980 Constitution, an illegitimate decree of the dictatorship, on grounds that the transition to democracy had to play by the rules and produce incremental reforms in time. Social pressure, however, has increased since 2006, demanding deeper political reforms that include a change of the binomial electoral system which guarantees a legislative tie between the center-right and center- left coalitions. The supermajorities of the Constitution and its 18 Organic Constitutional Laws (requiring 4/7 of the legislature to be amended) have given veto power to the parties of the right, blocking any substantive political reform.

Some of Bachelet’s main allies, like president of the Socialist Party Camilo Escalona, have argued that attempts to replace the 1980 Constitution would distract from more urgent and achievable goals, like tax reform. “Demanding a new constitution when there is no institutional crisis is like smoking opium”, he said in an interview last September.

The 1980 Constitution has experienced 131 amendments, affecting 79 out of its 120 articles. The broadest reforms took place in 1989, before the transition to democracy, and in 2005, when President Ricardo Lagos argued that this was in fact a new constitution and replaced the signature of the military in the text with his and his minister´s signatures. Today, some social sectors demand a Constituent Assembly. With the right opposed to further constitutional change and the Concertacion divided, such a mechanism seems improbable.

Suggested Citation: Claudia Heiss , Bachelet Appoints Group to Study New Constitution for Chile, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, May 1, 2013, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2013/05/bachelet-appoints-group-to-study-new-constitution-for-chile

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Published on May 1, 2013
Author:          Filed under: Developments
 

4 Responses

  1. dlandau

    This is fascinating and raises really interesting questions about constitutionalism. One of them to me is: does it matter for judicial review that the 1980 Constitution was so bound up with the Pinochet dictatorship, and thus widely seen as illegitimate? Is this linked in some ways to the passivity of the Chilean judiciary on constitutional matters, and would that passivity decrease with a new constitution?
    Another is: how risky would rewriting the constitution be in the Chilean environment? I would generally argue that writing a constitution when you don’t need it is a high risk strategy, because it inflames political tensions and can create a kind of high-stakes, institutional free-for-all. Those problems seem less likely in the Chilean institutional environment. But still, I wonder whether the threat of constitution-making would raise tensions that have long been pretty suppressed, especially in terms of polarization on the right.

    • Claudia Heiss

      I agree that a fundmental constitutional debate may stir polarization, particularly on the right, but I don´t think the situation can be characterized a “writing a constitution when you don´t need it”. The “politics of consensus” initiated by President Patricio Aylwin seems to have reached its limit, and the tight anti-majoritarian institutional structure has created a democratic deficit that is very difficult to sustain in time. I think fundamental changes are required, and people have become suspicious of agrements reached by power holders between closed doors.

  2. […] Reforms in 1989 chipped away at unelected influences over Chilean democracy. More far-reaching reforms in 2005 reigned in executive powers while simultaneously restoring civilian oversight of the military.  All told, the original constitution has undergone 131 amendments, affecting 79 of its 120 articles. […]

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