Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Chile elects delegates for its constitutional convention
Chilean voters have just elected delegates to their constitutional convention set to take place over the coming months, and progressive, independent candidates are the big winners.
2. COVID Cold War: is the U.S. missing its Marshall Plan moment?
American companies developed the safest and most effective COVID vaccines in the world, but China and Russia are miles ahead of the U.S. in sharing their vaccines with other countries. Has the U.S. missed out on its greatest humanitarian opportunity since the Second World War?
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Chile elects delegates for its constitutional convention
“Constitutional assembly now!! #ResignPiñera,” reads a sign during protests in Chile in October 2019. (José Miguel Cordero Carvacho / Wikimedia)
Chilean voters have just elected delegates to their constitutional convention set to take place over the coming months, and progressive independent candidates are the big winners.
Following an October 2020 plebiscite where 78% of voters called for a constitutional convention, voters returned to the polls on May 15th & 16th and elected their delegates. In a stunning rebuke to the current center-right coalition, it won just 37 seats. Meanwhile, independents won 48 seats, a new-left coalition, Apruebo Dignidad, won 28 seats, and the center-left won 25 seats, giving them a 2/3rds majority.
Though the independents don’t have a unified platform, many are involved in the protest movement against perceived ‘abuses’ from the right-wing government of President Sebastián Piñera. Piñera’s government has been caught up in corruption scandals, tied to unpopular policies like privatizing the country’s pension system, and accused of ignoring income inequality.
If the independents and the left-leaning parties are able to come together, they’ll be free to change the constitution without input from any other representatives. That’s a great deal of power, and we don’t need to quote the first Spiderman movie to make clear that these delegates will have a great responsibility to protect democratic checks and balances in whatever comes next.
But if Piñera’s government is the problem, then why change the Constitution?
The constitution was written in the twilight of Augusto Pinochet’s repressive military dictatorship, which collapsed in 1990. Ever since, Chilean democracy advocates have criticized some of its anti-democratic elements. The constitution granted significant power to the military, which retained sole authority to choose its leader and reserved ten percent of the country's copper mining revenues for its budget. The constitution also banned some far-left parties and overrepresented conservative ones.
Addressing the inequality, political corruption, and overreliance on the military which have plagued the nation since the Pinochet era could help move the country forward, but a lot could also go wrong.
Venezuela offers a cautionary tale. In 1998, voters turned out to support drafting a new, progressive constitution and in the process, elected a presidential candidate who swiftly became a dictator. Hugo Chávez promised to root out corruption and rewrite the constitution so elections wouldn’t strongly favor the establishment parties any longer. Shortly after winning, Chávez quickly began dismantling Venezuelan democracy. He dissolved the Senate, destroyed press freedoms, tanked Venezuelan industry, and laid the foundation for the greatest self-inflicted humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. By last year, more than 5 million refugees had been forced to flee the crumbling country. Venezuelan democracy died in an election, and the country has yet to recover.
Thankfully, Chile doesn’t have a prominent Chávez-like figure guiding the movement. Unfortunately, they might not need one to damage their democracy. If a new constitution ends up undermining democratic norms or institutions, it may inadvertently pave the path for an extremist government to seize power later on. Legitimate elections can destroy liberal democracy just as well as any coup. The question now is if this new constitution will contain the types of checks and balances necessary to protect democratic norms, or if it will serve as an opportunity for a new generation of Chilean authoritarians.
But this still begs the question: why should we care if we live outside of Chile?
The collapse of establishment parties and a rising interest in changing democratic institutions isn’t just a Chilean problem. According to Freedom House, democracy has been receding around the world over the past 17 years, and in countries where it’s well established, citizens are increasingly discontent. The Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans believe that significant changes are needed to the “fundamental design and structure of American government,” including 79% of left-leaning Americans. A second constitutional convention might not be coming to America anytime soon, but both the Far Left and Far Right are likely to push for significant changes to American government in the coming years.
In the meantime, Chile will be an important test case to see if constitutions can bend to progressive interests without sacrificing democratic safeguards. If the constitutional convention fails to positively reform Chilean democracy, it should serve as a warning to democracy advocates everywhere.
COVID Cold War: is the U.S. missing its Marshall Plan moment?
Russia and China have exported vaccines around the world, buying influence by selling shots.
Credit: Economist Intelligence Unit
In a fantastic display of scientific ingenuity, industrial might, and logistical expertise, American companies developed the safest and most effective COVID vaccines in the world at record pace. Even still, China and Russia are miles ahead of the U.S. in sharing their vaccines with other countries.
In the past, the U.S. played a vital role rebuilding Europe after World War II, feeding the poor as global population soared, and fighting the HIV/AIDS crisis. American leadership in a global pandemic would have been a given a generation ago; now, it’s an afterthought.
After months of inaction, the U.S. recently pledged to donate 80 million vaccine doses to foreign countries. This is certainly a start, but a modest one compared to the 728 million doses China has promised, 231 million of which have already been delivered. Meanwhile, Russia, a country with a GDP less than a tenth of the United States’, is slated to export 205 million doses.
Why should exporting vaccines be an American priority in the first place?
It’s in both America and the free world’s interest that the U.S. commit to global vaccination efforts.
Very practically, the more COVID spreads abroad, the more likely it is that a variant will arise that our vaccines don’t protect against. Therefore, it’s in our self-interest to ensure that as many people around the world as possible are given the best available vaccines.
The lackluster performance of some foreign vaccines is already on display around the world. Chinese-supplied states like Chile and the Seychelles have faced new outbreaks even after widespread inoculation, leading China’s top disease control official to admit that their leading vaccines are not very effective. Preliminary studies suggest that the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine is more effective, but it’s been plagued by production delays. Though vaccines from as many sources as possible are certainly welcome, it’s clear that the world cannot count on Russia and China to end this pandemic.
Meanwhile, China has made it clear that it’s not exporting vaccines out of the goodness of its authoritarian heart––it trades them for political favors. In Brazil, this takes the form of guaranteeing that Huawei can participate in the country’s 5G auction. In Honduras and Paraguay, it involves demanding that the countries designate Taiwan a Chinese province. When America cedes leadership to China, it isn’t just Americans who pay the price. The citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Uyghur people of Xinjiang, and countless other anti-authoritarian activists are collateral damage in China’s vaccine diplomacy. In the global battle between democracy and authoritarianism, millions of people stand to lose if democratic nations retreat.
Is it too late for America to change course?
The U.S. is playing catch-up, but it’s never too late to lead. America is quickly building up a large stockpile of vaccines, projected to reach 300 million doses by July and to expand by more than 300 million doses per month by the fall. This is a start, but we can do more.
Most of the $16 billion Congress has already appropriated to scale up production remains unspent, which is troubling, especially in light of the fact that the nonprofit, Public Citizen, estimates that a $25 billion government initiative could produce an astonishing eight billion doses of mRNA vaccine. This might sound expensive, but the alternative is worse. Vaccinating the world will cost tens of billions of dollars, but failing to do so could cost the global economy $1.2 trillion.
If we want to fight democratic backsliding, we need to prove that democracy offers more benefits than authoritarianism. And what could be more convincing than a 95%-effective vaccine, created through the collaboration of free societies around the world, delivered right to your doorstep?