Supporters celebrate the result of the referendum on a new Chilean constitution. Enthusiasm for change in one of the developing world’s hitherto most stable and prosperous countries is not hard to explain © Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters

Latin America has form on constitutions. Several of its nations are among the world’s most prolific charter-writers. The Dominican Republic is said to hold the record, with more than 30 since 1844 (though many are minor revisions). Venezuela has produced at least 20. Brazil’s 1988 constitution set a different kind of record, running to nearly 150 pages and obliging the government to “encourage leisure as a form of social promotion”.

Less clear is whether the results from the region’s frenzy of constitution-writing justify the energy expended; despite the plethora of rights granted, it has the world’s slowest-growing economies and its most unequal and violent societies. One of South America’s most successful nations, Uruguay, is one of the few not to have produced a new constitution in recent decades.

Undeterred, Chileans on Sunday voted by a majority of nearly four to one to call a constitutional convention to draft a new carta magna. Almost half of those eligible, however, did not vote.

The enthusiasm for change in one of the developing world’s hitherto most stable and prosperous countries is not hard to explain: sudden and prolonged rioting and protests a year ago called attention to deep-seated inequalities, poor quality public services and inadequate pensions. Critics say the current constitution lacks legitimacy because it dates back to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, although it has been heavily amended since.

Chile’s problems are not unique: many middle-income countries suffer a concentration of wealth in few hands, deficient public services and inadequate infrastructure. Chile’s low tax take, 21 per cent of output, is part of the problem, but taxing and spending more is not necessarily the answer. Neighbouring Argentina and Brazil have much higher tax takes than Chile but their Pisa educational scores are significantly worse.

A new constitution means risks, as well as opportunities. The Chilean peso slumped to a record low when President Sebastián Piñera agreed to a new charter last year. Still in ferment after the riots, Chile will elect members of its constitutional convention in April, amid politically charged campaigns for new governors and mayors. Much of the convention’s drafting work will coincide with a presidential and congressional election campaign.

Optimists suggest that a two-thirds threshold required for constitutional changes will ensure that Chile’s reputation for moderation endures. Pessimists point out that such a high bar can also produce a “maximalist” document littered with entitlements to please all sides. Chile’s moderate reputation is also relatively recent; this was the country which elected a Marxist president in 1970, overthrown in a military coup three years later.

Business leaders in Chile are far more pessimistic about the prospect of a new constitution than the general population, perhaps because they have more to lose; in a recent poll, 48 per cent said the country would end up worse off.

Neighbouring Bolivia also voted this month, choosing to return socialist icon Evo Morales’ MAS party to power after a year of chaotic and often inept interim government by a conservative caretaker administration. 

That vote was rightly hailed as an important affirmation of democracy in a country with a history of coups. However, both Andean nations are likely to discover that the answer to deep-seated structural problems lies not in highly polarised elections but in the patient work of building consensus across society to deliver strong and sustainable economic growth, with the fruits widely shared.

Letter in response to this editorial comment:

A new constitution is the framework Chile needs / From Jorge Heine, Former Chilean Cabinet Minister and Ambassador, Research Professor, Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, Boston, MA, US

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