Chile looks to Switzerland as it moves to more direct democracy

People wait for Chile’s new president Gabriel Boric during the presidential inauguration day on March 11 Vanessa Rubilar Quintana

The Chilean people demanded more democracy and less centralism. When drafting the new constitution, some parliamentarians looked to Switzerland as a model – even if, in the eyes of some, they went too far.

This content was published on August 29, 2022 – 09:00

Malte Seiwerth (text), Vanessa Rubilar Quintana and Thomas Kern (photos)

Paulette Baeriswyl has been back in Switzerland for two months and is full of enthusiasm. She participated in the constitutional process in Chile and worked for a year as an advisor to Margarita Vargas, indigenous delegate to the Constitutional Convention. During this time, the Swiss Federal Constitution was Baeriswyl’s most faithful companion.

“Chile has a lot to learn from Swiss democracy,” said Baeriswyl, 38, who is doing her doctorate at the University of Zurich, where she also teaches legal history.

Paulette Baeriswyl, pictured outside the University of Zurich canteen Thomas Kern/

Over the past 12 months, Chile has drafted a brand new constitution. In doing so, the members of the Convention focused on various countries of the world, including Switzerland. In a referendum in October 2020, the people of Chile tasked a specially elected Constitutional Convention with drafting a new fundamental law. Many delegates were particularly concerned with strengthening democracy, decentralizing the state and facilitating coexistence between the different indigenous peoples and the Chilean majority society.

On September 4, 2022, the people will vote again – this time on approving the new constitution. Polls predict a near outcome. Chilean law professor Javier Couso, who holds a chair at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, is in no way discouraged by this. “Anyway, the Chilean constitutional process is a step towards more democracy. The Chilean people want more co-determination, and countries like Switzerland are a great example of that,” he said.

Born out of crisis

In October 2019, large sections of the Chilean population took to the streets to protest against the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera and the neoliberal economic system. Despite the massive use of force and human rights violations, the government was unable to stem the protests.

Soon, many people were calling for a new constitution, as a way to rebuild the country with more social rights and greater democratic participation. On November 15 of the same year, a large coalition of deputies finally decided to launch a constitutional process.

Chileans were unhappy with what they saw as a lack of participation in political processes, according to Couso. Electing deputies and the president was no longer enough. The country was also too centralized. Almost half of the population lives in the capital, Santiago, and almost all major companies pay their taxes there, although their largest production sites are located in other parts of the country.

“People in the regions felt neglected,” Couso said. Moreover, Chile has struggled for years to resolve the conflict with its indigenous communities. They were driven from their lands long ago and their culture suppressed.

Instruments of direct democracy

In the eyes of its supporters, the new constitution is an attempt to fix all this. And Switzerland has been an inspiration in the process, said environmental activist Camila Zárate. She was elected to the Convention as a representative of the port city of Valparaíso. “Switzerland’s experience of multilingualism within the same country, its federal structure and its direct democracy have inspired us a lot,” she said.

Meanwhile, for ideas on how to strengthen environmental protection, Chile looked to Ecuador as a model.

If the new constitution is adopted, Chileans will soon become familiar with various instruments of direct democracy, including legislative initiatives and referendums.

The 16 regions of the country must be granted much greater autonomy vis-à-vis the central state, and a “Chamber of Regions” must be formed on the model of the Swiss Senate. Whatever their demographic size, the regions will be represented here with an equal number of deputies. The exact number is to be determined in an upcoming legal reform.

When Baeriswyl, who has also worked at the European Court of Human Rights, heard about the new constituent process and learned that Margarita Vargas, a well-known representative of the indigenous Kawésqar people, had been elected to the Convention, she offered his help as an adviser. Vargas gratefully accepted. So Baeriswyl, who talks about his experiences at the Convention with energy and enthusiasm, put his doctoral thesis on hold.

Paulette Baeriswyl has lived in Zurich since 2015. She is a Chilean of Swiss origin and a doctoral student in the field of the history of international law. Here it is in the library of the Law Institute of the University of Zurich. Thomas Kern/

“For me, it was also about creating justice and being part of a process that establishes a state that gives more rights to indigenous peoples,” she said.

As a descendant of settlers and having studied and traveled extensively, Baeriswyl feels she has a special responsibility. If approved, Chile’s new constitution will be the first to be drafted by democratically elected representatives.

not everyone is happy

According to the latest polls, however, at least 40% of the population will vote against the new constitution. Many opponents fear that the provisions favoring the expansion of the welfare state go too far. The liberal news magazine The Economist wrote about a “wish list” of leftist politicians that could not be funded from the national budget.

Critics also target the length of the constitution which, with its 388 articles, is particularly comprehensive by international standards. “As the right-wing parties were unable to form a blocking minority at the Convention, it soon became clear that they would reject the new constitution,” said law professor Javier Couso.

The feminist and indigenous features of the new Basic Law also caught parts of a still conservative society by surprise.

“The majority on the left has imposed a constitution on the rest of the population,” lamented Christian Democrat politician Ximena Rincón. in a Chilean talk showExternal link. She sees the draft constitution as a form of “revenge” that cannot lead to more consensus and dialogue.

The changes in the new constitution also go too far for many descendants of Swiss settlers. Many still live on indigenous territories, where they are sometimes threatened by militant groups. Occasionally they are the subject of arson, with occasional fatalities. As Baeriswyl explained of the settlers: “They tend to be conservative and afraid of losing their privileges.” They would do better, according to her, to take inspiration from the process of democratization that has been going on in Europe for 70 years.

Vote in October 2020 on whether to write a new constitution Vanessa Rubilar Quintana

Society Divided

Chilean society is extremely divided and the debate over the new constitution is emotionally charged. It remains unclear whether the elements of direct democracy will bring more political stability, despite the lack of will for consensus-driven politics and government built on the basis of concordance.

Opponents of the new constitution hope it will be voted down on September 4. Their plan is for a commission of experts to draft a second draft after the vote.

In the meantime, it is clear to Camila Zárate, the constitutional delegate from Valparaíso, that the Chilean people want more co-management. “I have never seen so much interest in a political process,” she said. She is convinced that the new constitution will be adopted.

If Baeriswyl succeeds, Switzerland should also be seen as a model for media diversity, because “a functioning democracy also requires media pluralism, and that does not exist in Chile at the moment”. Chile’s main newspapers and television stations are owned by right-wing entrepreneurs who are campaigning more or less openly for the rejection of the new constitution.

Adapted from German by Julia Bassam/ts

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