Monday, 29 October 2012

Student movement leads demands for a new constitution for Chile

by Sofia Donoso Knaudt*

As in other parts of the world, in Chile the year 2011 will be remembered for the massive demonstrations that took place across the country.

What are Chilean students shouting about?

From mid-May onwards, the student movement (from universities and secondary schools) staged the largest mobilisations Chile had witnessed since the reinstatement of democracy in 1990. The students have been calling for free quality education, and a new political constitution that allows for more citizen participation.

Through novel repertoires of action such as a performance of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ to depict themselves as ‘zombies’ of the education system, and 1,800 consecutive hours of running around the presidential palace to symbolise the $1.8 billion that funding the 300,000 most vulnerable students would cost, the movement rapidly gained public support. Surveys (in Spanish) show the student demands have approval rates close to 90%, while the incumbent right-wing government’s popularity has reached historical lows.

Stressing the huge proportion of middle income families’ budgets that is spent on education, the movement has retained its momentum. In June this year, students gathered over 100,000 people on the streets of the capital Santiago.

The outcome of the ongoing protests remains to be seen, but it is evident that the terms of the debate have shifted since the movement took off in May last year. Since then, not only education policies, but also tax reform, changes to the electoral system, and the possibility of a constituent assembly have dominated public debate.

The exhaustion of the Concertación’s governance formula

Crucially, the student protests have left the opposition in disarray. In power between 1990 and 2010, the Concertación, the centre-left coalition in charge of Chile’s acclaimed negotiated transition to democracy in 1989, was lauded in both academic accounts and wider international circles for its economic, political, and social achievements.

In light of the considerable institutional constraints bequeathed by the military regime (1973-1989), and the traumatic experience of dictatorship, the Concertación’s adopted a governance formula that put political stability in the forefront. This was translated into a consensus-seeking approach, and a tendency to thwart social mobilisation that might otherwise risk the process of democratic consolidation.

In the area of education (as in other policy fields), the Concertación’s gradualist and wary approach to policymaking involved sidestepping complicated negotiations and giving continuity to the institutional architecture left by the military regime. In doing so, the Concertación concealed unequal power relations in the garb of achieving consensus. As a result, as the students have claimed with unswerving fervour, the centre-left coalition failed to fulfil its most important pledge: to bring in equity.

What will be the impact of the Chilean student movement?

As university and secondary school students have claimed, the ever more intolerable inequality in Chile requires structural reforms that surpass the underlying logic of the Concertación’s governance formula. At the same time, the student movement has exposed the detachment of the Concertación from its social base. The resultant profound distrust is detrimental to the prospects of attaining the broad agreements required for far-reaching reforms.

Ironically, the same strategy of securing political stability that motivated the Concertación’s moderate left-wing stance is now causing discontent and mistrust in the political establishment and political institutions, complicating the prospects for reaching a new ‘social contract’ that addresses the country’s pending development challenges. As Roberts and Levitsky suggest in their recent book, ‘moderate’ centre-left administrations such as the Concertación in Chile might have ‘overlearnt’ the lessons left from the democratic breakdowns of the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America, ‘thereby failing to take advantage of a historic opportunity to bring about far-reaching social change.’

While the conclusion of this debate seems far away, it is clear that education and inequality will remain on the public agenda. To what extent are the student demands a result of a rising middle class demanding socioeconomic redistribution and more responsiveness from the political establishment? And what can other moderate left-of-centre forces in Latin America such as the PT in Brazil learn from the experience of Chile?

* Sofia Donoso Knaudt is a D.Phil. Candidate in Development Studies at the University of Oxford, and a Visiting Student in the Governance Team at IDS.

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