Gender Parity in the Chilean Constitutional Convention: What Does it Mean for Chilean Democracy?
Recently, on March 4, 2020, the two chambers of the Chilean Congress approved gender parity for the election of the Constitutional Convention that will shape the new Chilean Constitution. What is the importance of this? Why did Chilean women fight to obtain gender parity?
Since October 18, 2019, Chile has been traversing the most important social crisis of the last 30 years. Many citizens occupied the streets protesting against inequality and a unjust society. This crisis has not only been about economics; rather, citizens have pushed the political system to make deep changes in everyday life. To a certain extent, we could even say that Chilean representative democracy has been pushed to the brink of collapse by this social explosion, because public support for political parties of all stripes has declined to previously inconceivable levels. According to recent opinion polls (particularly, the Encuesta CEP), public trust in political parties has fallen to just 2%, and trust in the National Congress is at 3% (Centro de Estudios Públicos, 2020).
On November 15, 2019, the majority of Chilean political parties with parliamentary representation subscribed to “The Peace and the New Constitution Agreement”. Part of this agreement calls for a path to a possible new Constitution. The first part of this process would be an April 26, 2020 plebiscite wherein Chilean citizens can vote for if they want to change the Constitution, voting “Approve” or “Reject”, and how they want to change it (this has now been postponed in view of Covid-19). With regard to the “how”, there are two options: (1) a Mixed Constitutional Convention (fifty-percent current parliamentarians and fifty-percent chosen by voters), and (2) a Constitutional Convention, whose members would be one-hundred-percent elected by universal suffrage.
Following the March 4th gender parity vote, Chile will be the first country in the world with the possibility of building a new constitution in a constitutional convention with gender parity. Without a doubt, this would deepen gendered perspectives of institutional change. Additionally, introducing a gender perspective to the Constitutional Convention process would allow Chile to re-build institutions and create new social agreements based on feminist institutional frameworks.
Many international studies have shown how inclusive constitutional change processes have led to the introduction of gender into constitutional texts. In this manner, many have specifically established the equality of rights between men and women. As the Chilean feminist sociologist and activist, Julieta Kirkwood has posited, only women with an awareness of gender and feminism can be counted on to promote this equality of rights institutionally.
Following the November “Peace and New Constitution Agreement”, how was gender parity attained for the Constitutional Convention through the legislative process? In the original Agreement text, politicians never mentioned the inclusion of gender parity, reserved seats for indigenous peoples, or the participation of independent candidacies in the Constitutional Convention process. For that reason, it fell to the Legislature to fix these errors, trying to find different electoral formulas to incorporate those groups. As with all feminist reforms, the participation of different civil society groups was key for approving gender parity. As Elizabeth Evans has argued in her text, “Feminist Allies and Strategic Partners” (2016), feminist activists can establish links with female politicians and make alliances focused on achieving advances for women’s rights. In Chile something very similar has occurred. The recent gender parity improvements to the constitutional reform process were made possible due to women politicians, feminist NGOs and feminist social movement groups working together.
On the part of women politicians, this included those on the left, such as the Chilean Communist Party and the Frente Amplio; in the centre, for example, the Christian Democratic Party; and even a small part of the right, as some more liberal women politicians from the Renovación Nacional Party took part. At the same time, there was also lobbying by Chilean feminist NGOs, such as Corporación Humanas and Comunidad Mujer, and expert support by the academic group Red de Politólogas (Women Political Scientists’ Network; the electoral formula was designed by them). Feminist social movement activism, particularly on the internet and on social networking sites, also effectively pressured different male deputies and senators. The sum total of this coordination between women politicians, feminist NGOs and feminist social movement groups made possible the successful vote for gender parity in Congress. This coordination was especially necessary because the current Constitution demands a qualified majority (three-fifths in both chambers) for effecting constitutional changes. Here, it is necessary to point out that the opposition, by itself, didn’t have the votes; hence politicians and activists had to skilfully negotiate with key figures from the centre and the right, in order to persuade them to vote favourably for gender parity in the Constitutional Convention.
Currently, we continue to face two big challenges, even after having passed gender parity. First, we must win the plebiscite, marking not only the “Approve” option, but also the Constitutional Convention option. That is still a big hurdle, especially since the right has already started organizing a very strong “Reject” campaign. And, secondly, even if the “Approve” and Constitutional Convention options win, and gender parity is put into play, political parties and organisations must look for competitive, progressive, women candidates that can win seats. If we want to change the patriarchal Chilean state by integrating a gendered perspective, it is absolutely necessary that we have progressive women helping to write our new Constitution.
[I thank Hillary Hiner and Julieta Suárez-Cao for helping with the English version of this text.]