acemoglu70_JAVIER TORRESAFP via Getty Images_chileconstitution Javier Torres/AFP via Getty Images

What It Takes to Build Democratic Institutions

Chile's failure to draft a new constitution that enjoys widespread support from voters is the predictable result of allowing partisans and ideologues to lead the process. Democratic institutions are built by delivering what ordinary voters expect and demand from government, as the history of Nordic social democracy shows.

BOSTON – There are plenty of good models around to help both developing and industrialized countries build better democratic institutions. But with its abortive attempts to draft a new constitution, Chile is offering a lesson in what to avoid.

Though it is one of the richest countries in Latin America, Chile is still suffering from the legacy of General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship and historic inequalities. The country has made some progress in building democratic institutions since the 1988 plebiscite that began the transition from authoritarianism, and education and social programs have reduced income inequality. But major problems remain. There are deep inequalities not just in income, but also in access to government services, high-quality educational resources, and labor-market opportunities. Moreover, Chile still has the constitution that Pinochet imposed in 1980.

Yet while it seems natural to start anew, Chile has gone about it the wrong way. Following a 2020 referendum that showed overwhelming support for drafting a new constitution, it entrusted the process to a convention of elected delegates. But only 43% of voters turned out for the 2021 election to fill the convention, and many of the candidates were from far-left circles with strong ideological commitments to draft a constitution that would crack down on business and establish myriad new rights for different communities. When the resulting document was put to a vote, 62% of Chileans rejected it.