Opinion polls and constitutional issues: the case of Chile

The complex relationship between public opinion and constitutional issues is highlighted by the case of Chile, where a presidential election will take place this Sunday. Polls appear to suggest low public interest in constitutional issues, despite a ‘constituent process’ pushed by the current Bachelet government. Nonetheless, polling also indicates that the public is overwhelmingly in favour of constitutional reform. Alberto Coddou Mc Manus argues that polling is an important source of information for constitutional debates, but that findings should be critically assessed rather than taken at face value.

In general, opinion polls ask about our political preferences within established political systems. They ask us to express our political preferences or attitudes regarding the range of political options that the current constitutional system allows, either in the form of political candidates, ideas or reforms. In the US, opinion polls on constitutional matters have been fundamental for the analysis of the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, either for predicting judgments or for explaining its reasons. Moreover, opinion polls are an important instrument for ascertaining the degree of support, political approval, or legitimacy that a certain political system garners among the population. However, opinion polls are also an important tool for asking people hypothetical questions, such as the ones that emerge from the exercise of constitutional powers. Indeed, opinion polls can be an interesting device for investigating the possibilities that may derive from exercises in constitutional imagination.

In this scenario, the relationship between opinion polls and constitutional issues is multifarious: on the one hand, they can be an interesting measure of the degree of legitimacy of an extant constitutional arrangement; on the other, they can inquire into the possible outcomes or possibilities that may be open under alternative constitutional frameworks. In the middle, we can find those techniques of social research that attempt to capture the degree to which issues of legitimacy may result in positive dispositions towards creating new political institutions, or crafting a new institutional arrangement for addressing political issues. In countries not at risk of experiencing violent political conflict, or that are not close to institutional collapse, the different relations between opinion polls and constitutional matters constitute an important source for broader political analysis.

In the case of Chile, opinion polls reveal a complex relationship between public opinion and constitutional issues. In the face of a presidential election that will take place on November 19, the relevance of constitutional issues for the political agenda is a matter of debate. Although the country is undergoing a ‘constituent process’ pushed by the government of Michelle Bachelet, which during 2016 implemented a consultation process (which included self-convened meetings and open citizens’ assemblies organized by the government) for the people to discuss what constitutional issues should be included in a new constitution, there has been scant ‘popular’ mobilisation around the issue after the end of that consultation process in August of 2016. We are not witnessing the degree of popular mobilisation and exchange of opinion that would be required for a ‘constitutional moment’, according to Bruce Ackerman. Chile has one of the lowest rates of political participation around the world, and it is part of a select list of countries where the fall of political turnout has been the sharpest since 1990 (a list which includes Congo, Libya, and Madagascar, countries which, unlike Chile, have experienced recent and serious political conflicts). According to a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), political disaffection and the loss of popular trust in political institutions should be a warning sign for Chilean democracy.

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The Chilean constituent process: a long and winding road


Chile’s current government is committed to the replacement of its 1980 constitution. To formulate a new constitution it has instigated a unique bottom-up process, focusing debate in the public sphere through local meetings and citizens’ assemblies before any discussion in traditional institutional venues begins. Alberto Coddou Mc Manus offers an overview.

Chile is undergoing a unique constituent process. A longstanding aim of several social movements, the idea of a new constitution now dominates the agenda, and is one of the main commitments of the current government. The commitment to replace the Constitution of 1980 stems partly, but not exclusively, from its origin in dictatorship. In an era where structural reforms have been at the forefront of centre-left governments around the region, various constraints put in place by the 1980 Constitution have assumed a central place in the Chilean political public sphere. It seems that Chileans have to discuss, design and implement every policy under the shadow of Pinochet’s constitution, which was carefully crafted to preclude the institutional articulation of progressive political projects. Several critiques of the current constitutional arrangements have emerged: the powers of the Constitutional Court, which has threatened to strike down major reform packages; super-majoritarian laws that regulate fundamental issues (like education, local government, or the organisation of the armed forces), which were mostly enacted during the dictatorship and to which any reform can be blocked by a congressional minority of 3/7ths; and, echoing a problem that is widespread in the region, a hyper-presidentialism that relegates Congress to a secondary role.

In this scenario, and under the pressure of social movements that during the last presidential election called on people to mark their ballots in order to support a Constituent Assembly, President Bachelet committed her political forces to launch a constitutional process that would comply with three standards: respect for the current institutional arrangements, in order to motivate the participation of sceptical sectors of the political establishment; active participation of the citizenry, that for the first time in the Chilean history has been invited to be the main actor of this process; and inclusiveness, which implies being aware of different groups that have been historically and structurally excluded from political debates. What was drafted in general terms in her political manifesto is now being implemented, and the precise articulation and design of the constituent process is something that may attract the interest of broader regional or global audiences. Three features of the current constituent process should be highlighted.

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