Chile should reject dictatorship-era constitution review

Santiago (AFP) – Chileans will go to the polls on Sunday to choose whether or not to adopt a new constitution that aims to transform its market-oriented society into a more welfare-based one while enacting sweeping institutional reforms.

While Chileans had previously voted en masse for a rewrite of the current constitution, adopted in 1980 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), opinion polls suggest that the new text will be rejected.

Social upheaval that began in 2019 as tens of thousands demanded a fairer society provided the impetus to revise the constitution, but several clauses in the proposed 388-article draft have proven controversial.

“I’m going to reject it because it’s a constitution that started badly,” Maria Angelica Ebnes, a 66-year-old housewife in Santiago, told AFP.

“It was forced, by violence.”

In October 2019, protests erupted mainly in the capital, led by students initially angered by a proposed rise in metro fares.

This has morphed into broader discontent with the country’s neoliberal economic system as well as growing inequality.

Although polls predict that the new constitution will be rejected, supporters are still hopeful, especially because of what they see on the streets.

An estimated 500,000 people turned out for the official closing of the “endorsement” campaign in Santiago on Thursday night, while no more than 500 turned out for the “rejection” rally.

“People will go out and vote in droves and the polls will be wrong once again,” said Juan Carlos Latorre, a lawmaker in leftist President Gabriel Boric’s ruling coalition, which backs the new text.

Over 15 million Chileans are eligible to vote in the mandatory referendum.

The main concern of voters is the importance given to the country’s indigenous peoples, who make up nearly 13% of the 19 million inhabitants.

Proposals to legalize abortion and protect the environment as well as natural resources such as water, which are currently often overexploited by private mining companies, have also received a lot of attention.

The new constitution would also overhaul Chile’s government, replacing the Senate with a less powerful “chamber of regions” and requiring women to hold at least 50% of positions in public institutions.

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5% chance to ‘approve’

While recent polls have pushed the “rejected” vote up by as much as 10 percentage points, sociologist Marta Lagos thinks “approve” could still win the plebiscite.

In the vast metropolitan area of ​​Santiago, the majority of people seem likely to vote for it, although the north and especially the south are largely against it.

“There is always the possibility that all the polls are wrong and indeed the advantage to ‘approve’ in Santiago could offset the disadvantage in the north and south,” Lagos told AFP.

“I don’t think that possibility is more than 5%, and ‘dismissing’ it has a 95% chance of winning.”

But what she is certain of is that “the gap will not be 10 points as the three polls published in the last two weeks say”.

Only a simple majority is required for the new constitution to be adopted.

About 40 world-renowned economists and political scientists expressed their support for the new project last week.

Still, some fear that the new constitution will generate instability and uncertainty, which could then harm the economy.

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“What you can see is a certain conservatism in the Chilean electorate that we haven’t seen in years,” Lagos said.

It was certainly muted last December when millennial Boric was elected president.

Controversial Indigenous clauses

Supporters of the new constitution say it will bring about major changes in a conservative country marked by social and ethnic tensions and lay the foundations for a more equal society.

They say the current constitution, which has given free rein to private enterprise in crucial industries, has created fertile ground for the rich to thrive and the poor to struggle.

Although the 1980 constitution has undergone several reforms since its adoption, it retains the stigma of having been introduced during a dictatorship.

Having already voted to rewrite the constitution and then elect the representatives to do so, this will be the third time in just two years that Chileans have gone to the polls on this issue.

The new text was drawn up by a constitutional convention made up of 154 members – mostly without political affiliation – divided equally between men and women, and with 17 seats reserved for indigenous people.

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The resulting proposal recognizes 11 indigenous peoples and provides them with greater autonomy, including in judicial matters.

This is the most controversial clause, with some critics accusing the authors of trying to turn traditionally marginalized indigenous people into an upper class of citizens.

If accepted, the Chilean Congress will then begin to decide how to apply the new laws. If the new text is rejected, the current constitution will remain in place.

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