Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Symposium on Chilean Referendum Part V: The Times They Are A-Changin’

[Editor’s Note: This is the final post in I-CONnect’s five-part symposium on the recent Chilean referendum authorizing a new constitution-making process. The symposium was organized by Professors José Francisco García and Sergio Verdugo, whose introduction is available here.]

Patricio Zapata, Universidad Católica de Chile[1]

It was just two months after that great march on Washington for jobs and freedom and only one month before J.F.K was shot in Dallas. Session Two of the Second Vatican Council had just started. Five years before that tumultuous May in Paris.

It was then, October 1963, that Bob Dylan entered a studio and recorded “The times they are A-Changing”. Later on, Dylan would confess to not having originally conceived that song as a political statement. Don´t matter. It did become an anthem to rebels, radicals and all sort of rabble-rousers.

Let´s look at the lyrics of Dylan:

Come gather ’round, people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth savin’

And you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’

We do live in a time of political change. We do know that Constitutions are not miracle makers. And yet, we cannot escape. We are expected to say something useful in the face of the crisis of our democracies. And we should.

Is it reasonable, then, to keep repeating as a mantra (a “sacred” utterance) everything that was taught to us twenty or forty years ago? So whether we are asked about the merits of a given electoral system or the advantages of having a Prime Minister, we should not ignore the fact that, notwithstanding their electoral system or their form of government, all democratic regimes are cracking. This fact cannot be, obviously, a reason for not exploring changes on those areas. But, it should force us to look in more depth to the problems directly associated with democratic deficits. As we are so prone to repeat, as the lawyers we are, our societies do need, of course, stability and efficiency. Still, our times, those that are changing, require a particular focus on legitimacy, participation and better representation.       

With an open mind, should also come humbleness. Let us listen to Dylan some more:

Come writers and critics

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won’t come again

And don’t speak too soon

For the wheel’s still in spin

And there’s no tellin’ who

That it’s namin’

Who prophesize with your pen

For the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin’

This last Sunday the people of Chile voted for constitutional change. In doing so, they overcame the more conservative voices warning about the perils of opening what they see a Pandora’s Box. The forces advocating the convenience of a Constitutional Convention, ranging from left to moderate right, understood correctly the needs and the moods of the country. Also, they were able to convince the voters that the process that was offered had sufficient guarantees so that the rights of minorities would not be trampled upon (including a 2/3 requirement of approval in the Convention and a final referendum on the text).

So, to my colleagues in I-CON, a word from Chile: Times are changing. I do realize, of course, that they are also changing, and fast, in the United States, in France, in Hong Kong and elsewhere. To understand that change, it might be useful to heed from the musical “Les Miserables”: we need, then, to “hear the people sing …singing a song of angry men” (and women).

We, constitutional scholars, should take notice. Of course, this new climate is no reason for us to ditch the essential principles of “Rule of Law” and separation of powers (in fact, those arrangements may be needed now more than ever). But, awareness about what is being demanded should pull us, or push us, however you want to phrase it, out of rigid intellectual habits. We need new and fresh thinking. And, if we have a real commitment to democracy, we need to envision sensible ways to devolve more power to the people. Especially, we need to listen.

The Times …they are A-Changin’

Suggested citation: Patricio Zapata, The Times They Are A-Changin‘, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 7, 2020, at:

[1] Patricio Zapata was the chair of the committee appointed by former President Bachelet to oversee the constitution-making process during her Presidential term, and he is the author of “La Casa de Todos y Todas” and “Justicia Constitucional en Chile.” He has an LLM from Harvard Law School and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the P. Universidad Católica de Chile


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