How Public Opinion on Chile’s Draft Constitution Shifted From Approve to Reject in Four Days

How Public Opinion on Chile’s Draft Constitution Shifted From Approve to Reject in Four Days


Originally published in Spanish by Centro de Investigación Periodística (CIPER).

Translated by Liza Schmidt.

In just four days, between March 29 and April 1, the Apruebo (approve) vote lost its comfortable lead in the polls over the Rechazo (reject) and never recovered. In the September 4 plebiscite, Rechazo triumphed with 61.9 percent of votes, surpassing Apruebo’s 38.1 percent. Until the last week of March, the weekly poll by Cadem showed Apruebo 10 points ahead of Rechazo, with 46 to 36 percent. But the following week marked a turn that left Rechazo six points ahead: 46 to 40.

What captured public attention in those few days was a debate in Congress on a fifth withdrawal of pension funds. [Translator’s note: during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chile’s Congress approved a series of bills to allow people to make early withdrawals from their pension funds as a form of relief]. It was a topic of great public interest that became fertile ground for a successful communication offensive by the Rechazo camp, three months before the beginning of the official campaign period. The effects in the polls were devastating for Apruebo.

These were the events that marked those days.

Tuesday, March 29

The Constitutional Convention eliminated the possibility that the draft constitution could include the norm known as “Not With My Money” (“Con Mi Plata No”), which was proposed by the public and backed by 60,000 signatures. The initiative would have ensured that both existing and future pension funds belong to workers.

The vote in the Convention dismissing “Not With My Money” came at the same time as the parliamentary discussion on whether to approve the fifth pension fund withdrawal. It was well known that the new government of President Gabriel Boric, which had been in office for only 16 days at that point and identified with Apruebo, opposed the bill. One week before, on Monday, March 21, the lower house of Congress had given the green light to the idea of a new withdrawal, a policy based on the public opinion that these resources should be for retirement savers.

Wednesday, March 30

The front page of Chilean newspaper Las Últimas Noticias hit hard and went viral: “The workers will no longer be owners of their retirement savings.” The quote was from economist and then Convention member Bernardo Fontaine. The text of the draft constitution did not say this. Rather, it stated that if it were approved, the details about pension fund ownership would need to be defined by a law developed in Congress. But Fontaine’s interpretation successfully linked the Convention’s decision to reject the “Not With My Money” proposal with the idea that the ownership of pension funds was at risk.

The thousands of people who had signed in support of the “Not With My Money” initiative were the ideal sounding board to take Fontaine’s front page message viral, making it a trending topic on Twitter.

Fontaine knew the strategic reach of his words: the spokesperson of “Not With My Money” was Francisco Orrego, a lawyer and member of the conservative Renovación Nacional (RN) party, who was also acting as Fontaine’s communications and legal advisor in the Convention.

Friday, April 1

Cadem published a new poll showing Rechazo beating Apruebo for the first time: 46 percent to 36 percent. The survey was carried out between Wednesday, March 30, when Fontaine’s front page quote went viral, and Thursday, March 31. From then on, Rechazo maintained a lead of three to 18 points in Cadem polls. In the last Cadem poll, published on August 19, Rechazo led with 46 percent.

Saturday, April 9

In a video, former Convention member Ruggero Cozzi of RN emphasized the Convention’s rejection of the “Not With My Money” initiative. The clip went viral, sparking a Rechazo social media campaign. The video was accompanied by the text: “The Constitutional Convention does NOT want to protect your savings.” The post appeared in an old Facebook page called “Reform the Reform,” launched in 2014 amid discussions about changes to the private pension administration system (AFP). The page reactivated its ad spending to oppose Apruebo. The page is funded by the Citizens in Action Foundation, where Fontaine served as the director until joining the Convention.

Monday, April 11

In the media, mentions of Apruebo and Rechazo reached a tipping point, according to a study published by Unholster on its Chile Decides platform on August 16. The study reviewed 18 outlets and found that during those days in April, the word Rechazo was mentioned 120 times, compared to Apruebo’s 95. Until the previous week, the difference in favor of Rechazo had been only 49 to 43.

Thursday, April 14

The weekly Cadem poll showed for the first time that disapproval for Boric surpassed approval: 50 percent disapproval versus 40 percent approval. The previous assessment had shown 44 percent in favor and 41 against Boric’s leadership. Since then, the Rechazo vote maintained its lead.

Monday, April 18

The proposed fifth pension fund withdrawal failed to pass in the lower house, with many of Boric’s allies voting against it. The move slammed the door on one of the most popular initiatives that had dominated the agenda since the onset of the pandemic. Criticism of the government and Apruebo went viral again.

A Five-Month Campaign

Once Rechazo had gained the upper hand in the polls, it needed to maintain it. The Rechazo campaign replicated Fontaine’s successful strategy of presenting extreme interpretations and hypothetical scenarios as truth—like the idea that pension funds would no longer belong to workers—in other areas of top public concern. Regarding health care, they said that people would only be treated in public hospitals and that wait lists would grow. For housing, they asserted that home ownership would no longer be guaranteed. Concerning education, they said that the state would cease financing privately subsidized schools, which would then disappear.

A careful communications strategy helped spread these ideas on social media. It began in early April, when videos and images went viral with claims that the Convention would not protect citizens’ retirement savings, and continued until the plebiscite. This outreach strategy lasted almost five months, three of which were outside the official legal campaign period.

To spread these messages on social media, Rechazo organizations reactivated old accounts—like the page connected with the foundation associated with Fontaine—and created several fanpages, arguing that they would help “test” content for use during the legal campaign period. But, like the retirement fund issue, these early messages went viral.

CIPER identified a group of 29 Facebook and Instagram pages outside Electoral Service control that were associated with Rechazo organizations and initiatives. According to official records on these platforms, between May and July these pages spent more than 116.7 million Chilean pesos (about $120,000) to promote posts criticizing the proposed constitution, questioning the Convention’s actions, and even openly encouraging Rechazo votes. The strategy also included direct messaging via WhatsApp.

Among these pages, the fanpages stand out. “Chile Voices Project,” an initiative that supposedly tested propaganda and messages that would be used in the “Band of Citizens for Rechazo” spent more than 19 million Chilean pesos ($19,000) on 72 posts. There are also the fanpages “The Rational” and “The Conviction,” which together spent 9 million Chilean pesos (over $9,000) on propaganda. These two are administered by the Chile First Foundation, which includes people who worked in the Ministry of Communication under Jorge Selume during former president Piñera’s administration. Selume was the general coordinator of the Band of Citizens for Rechazo. Similarly, the Citizens in Action Foundation—whose director is Diego Fleishmann Chadwick, nephew of former Minister of the Interior Andrés Chadwick—spent 3.6 million Chilean pesos ($3,700) during this same period.

The Citizens in Action Foundation, where Fontaine was director, spent a total of more than 80 million Chilean pesos ($82,000) on Facebook and Instagram accounts between May 22, 2020 and August 6, 2022, with most of its investments concentrated during the months that the Convention convened. Its posts primarily promoted interviews with Fontaine and criticism of the draft constitution’s proposals regarding pensions, housing, education, and health care.

For Valentina de Marval, a data specialist and professor at the Universidad Diego Portales, Rechazo’s long campaign used a political propaganda strategy based on “two flanks of disinformation,” omitting facts and predicting hypothetical scenarios. “They made predictions or interpretations as if they were part of articles already written in the text. For example, regarding health care they always omitted that the proposed constitution gave people the power to choose between a private and public provider,” she said.

Axel Callis, analyst and director of the pollster Tú Influyes, insists that citizen receptiveness to Rechazo’s messaging was laid down between February, March, and April, when the public debate focused on initiatives outside the public interest, like dissolving the state. “Public opinion then did not distinguish between what was proposed and what was actually endorsed by the Convention. It was the elite that made this distinction,” he said. “That generated a critical mass of which Rechazo took greater advantage.”

The Loss of Private Homeownership?

The discussion about home ownership became notorious at the end of June, shortly before the legal campaign began. In a viral video on June 28, Franciso Orrego, the spokesperson for “Not With My Money” and former advisor to Fontaine in the Convention, told a group of residents in the southern Chilean town of Angol that the draft constitution did not prioritize homeownership.

“Don’t let them lie to you, I want to give you the tools that you need to talk with your neighbors and tell them that this ‘right to housing’ is not the right to homeownership, and that implies that in the future there could be a total restructuring of the entire state subsidy distribution system,” said Orrego in the clip that was shared on Twitter. On the same platform, former Convention members denounced that Orrego’s information was false.

It wasn’t the first time that fear of losing homeownership without receiving adequate compensation became the subject of viral propaganda. On May 4, the Convention agreed to incorporate in the draft the concept of “a fair price for confiscated property.” That same day—two months before the legal campaign period began—La Coordinadora, the platform that managed all the civil Rechazo organizations, paid nearly 300,000 Chilean pesos ($300) to promote a video about the “fair price.” The advertisement’s protagonist was the character Aunt Norma, who asked people in the street: “If you had to give up your house, would you want to be paid less than what it costs?” The video ended with Aunt Norma saying, “The new constitution will let politicians decide whether or not compensation is at market value.”

Everyone in the Public Health System and Collapsed Hospitals?

On WhatsApp, Citizens in Action Foundation shared a memo on health that was redistributed by politicians and supporters. “It was approved and all its implications,” said the two page text, which went viral on June 10. While the draft constitution proposed a “National Health System” that would integrate public and private providers—hospitals and clinics—the memo from Fontaine’s foundation changed the name of the system. Citizens in Action renamed it as “Single National Public Health System,” adding that “everyone will pass to FONASA,” the state-run health service. “In other words,” Citizens in Action claimed, “we will have more patients, more demand for care, more waitlists, and no additional budget in the public system.” But this is not what the draft constitution said.

“FONASA will not exist, nor the ISAPREs [private health insurance providers],” explained former Convention member Gaspar Domínguez before the September 4 vote. “The proposed norm says that the National Health System will be composed of public and private providers, seeking just the right public-private integration—like occurred during the pandemic—so that everyone can receive care everywhere.” He added, “The details about how private and public providers are going to function together, what the conditions will be for each, what the conditions will be for users, are questions that we cannot answer right now, because they will be the subject of legal discussion in the coming years.”

The End of Private Subsidized Schools?

On May 12, the Convention approved the creation of the National Education System. Right-wing Convention members tried, unsuccessfully, to explicitly include in the text the state’s ability to finance non-state educational institutions and parents’ right to choose how to educate and raise their children. This sparked criticism from the Coordinator of Private Subsidized Schools (CCPS).

Then, the claim began to circulate on social media that the proposal would bring an end to private subsidized schools and various other educational projects. But the draft constitution specifically pointed out that the National Education System would include both state- created establishments (public education), and those recognized by the government (subsidized and private). It also established the freedom of education, which requires a variety of schooling options among which parents can choose.

Organizations like the Confederation of Parents and Guardians of Private Subsidized Schools of Chile (Confepa) and initiatives like “Don’t Mess With My Children,” which campaigns against comprehensive sexual education and gender identity in schools, were key in the circulation of messages claiming that private subsidized schools were at risk.

Once the work of the Convention was complete, the Action Educate foundation, funded by Raúl Figueroa, the former minister of education under Piñera, launched the campaign “No One Told Me” criticizing the draft constitution for leaving “parents without alternatives” and “not guaranteeing parents’ right to choose [their child’s] education.” The foundation, which was not legally registered to campaign, spent 8.9 million Chilean pesos on Facebook and Instagram posts between July and August, when the legal campaign period was in full swing.

Macarena Segovia is a journalist for CIPER. She has also worked for outlets like El Mostrador, La RED y La Diaria de Uruguay, is the creator of the podcast La Cuarta Ola, and a professor at the Universidad UNIACC.

Paulina Toro has published works in various outlets, including The Clinic, La Tercera, El Mercurio, La Segunda y Las Últimas Noticias. She is the coauthor of the book Joyitas, los protagonistas de los mayores escándalos de corrupción, and a professor of investigative journalism at the Universidad Diego Portales.

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Jorge Oliveira