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I-CONnect Symposium on the Chilean Constitutional Referendum – Political representation in the Chilean Constituent Convention: a view from a constructivist perspective

Natalia Morales Cerda, PhD student at Faculty of Laws, University College London (UCL)

That “political representation” was –among many others and of a different nature– one of the causes of the categorical rejection of the constitutional draft proposed by Chile’s Constitutional Convention in the plebiscite of 4 September, seems to be somewhat agreed. Two columns published in this blog have taken direct aim at it. For Sergio Verdugo, for example, the serious problem of political representation in the Convention was linked to the absence of political parties which, for different reasons, did not play a leading role in the constitution-making process, leaving it mainly in the hands of independents (Verdugo 2022). While María Isabel Aninat Sahli, who also seeks to explain the 62% of the “rejection” vote in the idea of political representation, argues that a certain “new form of political representation”, emboldened by the reflection of the diversity of Chilean society that the composition of the Convention offered and the role of the media in an idea of “unmediated” representation, had ultimately failed (Aninat Sahli 2022).

Certainly, Verdugo’s and Aninat’s explanations differ in identifying the “evil” of political representation in the Chilean process; they coincide, however, in aiming their shots at one of the essential characteristics of contemporary constitutional democracies: political representation. Nevertheless, none of these columnists challenge the limitations of the notion of political representation as a mandate, which is at the core of the current crisis of representative democracy. This is because, ultimately, in contemporary democracies political representation does not function as modern theorists committed to the idea of mandate imagined it –the notion presented by Verdugo–, nor as citizens imagine it –which would be the “new form” identified by Aninat. Then, how did political representation work in the Constitutional Convention? How did those who had historically been excluded from these spaces –such as women– perform political representation?

Because I am interested in the conception of political representation, I will focus on Aninat’s article. Aninat states that, given that the origin of the Chilean constituent process is in the social outburst of 2019, the distance that the constituent process took from the political parties, the government and the Congress was understandable and even expected. Let us remember that, when faced with the question of which body should draft the Constitution –a 100% elected Constitutional Convention or a Mixed Convention, with 50% of the members of the National Congress–, the Chilean people chose the former. The message, read at the time, was clear. This affected the composition of the constitutional body which, endowed with reserved seats for native people, gender parity and incentives for independent candidacies, was identified from the beginning as separate from the rest of the political system, with a strong rhetoric of constituent power, but, above all –and here is a key element for Aninat– with “a much deeper idea that permeated all the deliberation of the Convention: a different proposal of political representation”

The problem with this “new form of representation”, according to Aninat, was the fragmentation with which the Constitutional Convention operated. This, both because of its internal organization and rules of procedure, which determined the form of negotiation within the body, and also because of the “blank slate” rule. On the latter, Aninat reflects: “But the main problem came through the combination of a fragmented Convention with the possibilities of a text that started with a blank slate. The very idea of a different representation made it necessary for all new causes to be part of the constitutional debate”. Here, Aninat tries to link the criticized “identity politics” existing in the Convention, seen by the columnist as fragmented, with this new “a quasi-experimental, immediate and specular conception of representation”. A relationship, in Aninat’s opinion, failed.

Aninat concludes her analysis with a reflection that I would like to use as a starting point for my own: “how do we design rules for more effective representation that can address the complexities of a pluralistic society” (emphasis mine). I borrow this phrase to begin by pointing out my agreement with the columnist: the failure of the Convention does not signal the “end of representative politics” –using a Simon Tormey’s statement (Tormey 2014)– as some seem to suggest (Vergara 2022)– and here I distance myself from Aninat– but the end of representation as “mandated representation” (Disch 2019).

Contrary to what Aninat argues, the Chilean constitution-making process was strongly anchored in a “standard” notion of political representation. This classical or standard version of representation is understood as a principal-agent relationship, encompassing both authorisation and accountability processes. From this formal perspective, the combination of these elements constitutes the representative relationship itself, which is reduced to electoral representation.

In contemporary democracies, political representation operates on a territorial and electoral basis, which provides a foundation for political equality. The latter is reinforced by universal suffrage and the progressive accommodation of equivalent constituencies. Electoral representation, whose mechanisms guarantee some measure of responsiveness to the people by the representatives and political parties that speak and act on their behalf, is thus seen as a space within which the sovereignty of the people is identified with the power of the state. Ultimately, these characteristics demonstrate a conception of the political practice of representation simply as a relationship between two spheres: an act of authorisation and the accountability of representatives to the represented (Urbinati and Warren 2008; Castiglione and Warren 2019).

In the Chilean case, despite the gender parity, reserved seats for indigenous peoples and the majority presence of independents, political representation operated mostly as a formal relationship of authorisation through the corresponding election, which was also governed by the rules that regulate the election of members of the Chamber of Deputies. Hence, this approach did not challenge representative relationship considerations –for example, the dilemma that arises between expectations of democratic responsiveness to voters and the context-dependence of individual voters’ preferences (Disch 2011)–, the objects and subjects of political representation –for example, the role of transnational actors in political discourses, or the significance of the representative activity of historically included groups, beyond their presence– and the context in which the act of representation acquires meaning, understanding it as a dynamic process rather than a static fact of electoral politics (Saward 2010; 2014).

Consider, for example, the meaning of gender parity in terms of political representation. According to the standard account or version of representation, developed largely by Hanna Pitkin and on whose work the dominant feminist literature has relied, the argument of political representation as presence, with a strong democratic character, and its consequences in terms of substantive representation, seemed incontrovertible in the Chilean Constitutional Convention. In my view, however, understanding the political representation of women and feminism in today’s democracies demands shifting beyond the idea that political representatives echo, reproduce or trace pre-existing social cleavages. This would require a re-examination of how people –in this case, women– partake in political representation.

One approach to observe how political representation participates in the creation of what it purports to stand for – to represent– is to pay attention to the perceptions, behaviours, and experiences of those who perform the representation. Particularly on the element of the representative relationship, for example, it is useful to ask how women Convention members became member in the first place and how they engaged with their potential voters to do so; what influenced their votes at the Convention and whether, in those decisions, they were influenced in any way by their voters; or whether long-term relationships were built with or around women Convention members.

These questions are at the core of my doctoral research. As part of this research, I have so far conducted over two dozen interviews with women members of the Convention, exploring the representative relationship between them and the people they represent, according to the traditional notion of the mandate. This research, albeit at a preliminary stage, has shown that the forms that women adopted to engage with their potential voters included one-to-one, personalised dialogue and personal experience sharing, and that these relationships, although intended to be extended over time, were truncated by the material conditions of the ongoing constitution-making process (e.g., availability of budget and time). Most of my interviewees say that, despite having received criticism of their votes or interventions at the Constitutional Convention, these did not change their attitudes or positions.

I suggest that exploring notions that challenge the widely accepted normative considerations of political representation as a mandate requires a lengthy reflection on some of the issues I have preliminarily outlined. Undoubtedly, the normative foundations and political potency of electoral representation cannot simply be neglected. The democratic value of political equality as an achievement of modern times prevents us from doing so. However, in recent decades it has become clear that representation and political practices in contemporary democratic societies are a more complex process, which requires attention to the contexts of crisis of political distrust, the emergence of social movements that –with greater or lesser articulation– dispute institutionality, and the “old-new” political actors, such as women and sexual dissidence and indigenous peoples.

The Constitutional Convention was marked by a novel, almost revolutionary, integration that made us think that there, in the mere presence of those who had been historically excluded from decision-making spaces, we would find the key to reversing the crisis of representative democracy in Chile. Apparently, we were wrong, and the “new forms of representation” have not yet arrived.

Suggested citation: Natalia Morales Cerda, Political representation in the Chilean Constituent Convention: a view from a constructivist perspective, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 21, 2022, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2022/10/i-connect-symposium-on-the-chilean-constitutional-referendum–political-representation-in-the-chilean-constituent-convention-a-view-from-a-constructivist-perspective/

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Published on October 21, 2022
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