Towards a new Constitution? Chileans vote in referendum

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For or against a change of Constitution: the Chileans vote Sunday by referendum, a year after the outbreak of a social uprising of unprecedented scale that called into question the ultra-liberal economic model accused of benefiting only the richest.

Getting rid of the Constitution inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) was one of the demands of the demonstrators who took to the streets from October 18, 2019 to demand a more just society.

The 14 million voters called to vote on Sunday will have to answer two questions: “Do you want a new Constitution?” and “Which body should draft the new Constitution?”.

They will be able to choose between a “Constitutional mixed convention” made up of elected citizens and parliamentarians, and a “Constituent convention” made up of citizens only.

Polling stations will be open from 8 a.m. local (11 a.m. GMT) to 8 p.m., two hours longer than usual to avoid crowds due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chile crossed the 500,000 mark on Saturday (13,000 deaths), but the contagion curve has now stabilized.

For the supporters of “Apruebo” (I approve), mainly in the opposition of the center and the left, a new constitution would remove an essential obstacle to deep social reforms, in one of the most unequal countries in Latin America .

“The current Constitution favors the neoliberal system to an extreme level, it has perpetuated a totally unequal system,” said Ernesto Quintana, a 38-year-old psychologist.

The defenders of the “Rechazo” (I reject), who bring together the most conservative parties, believe that it is possible to introduce changes in the fundamental text, which they believe have guaranteed the stability of Chile in recent decades, without needing to replace it.

“I want peace and for that I vote against”, we can read on the walls of the capital Santiago, in reference to the violence, looting and degradation which have regularly punctuated the demonstrations since the beginning of the crisis.

According to the latest polls, the “Apruebo” would win with a score between 60 and 75% of the vote, but the pandemic leaves some uncertainty about participation.

Original sin

Until that date, no attempt to replace the basic text had succeeded: the Constitution had been drawn up in 1980 so that the conservative fringes of society could remain in power, even after the end of the dictatorship.

“The first objective of this constitutional process is to emerge from the shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship (…), in order to have a new Constitution without the original sin of having been drawn up under duress”, explains to the ‘AFP Marcelo Mella, political scientist from the University of Santiago.

The second objective, he adds, is “to be able to solve by political and peaceful means the problems which have become structural and which paralyze the functioning of Chilean democracy”, such as inequality and exclusion.

Consequence of the pandemic and coincidence of the calendar: initially scheduled for April 26, the ballot had been postponed to October 25.

It will therefore take place one year to the day after the historic gathering in Plaza Italia, in the center of Santiago, when 1.2 million people gathered at the epicenter of the demonstrations, marking a turning point in the protest.

Until the outbreak of the crisis, Chile was praised as one of the most stable in Latin America, praised for its good macroeconomic performance.

Conservative President Sebastian Piñera, one of Chile’s richest men, even called his country an “oasis” in the region, a few days before the start of the social rebellion.

Triggered by an increase in the metro ticket in Santiago, the crisis was fueled by the anger of the population provoked by the disconnection of the elites in the face of the difficult daily life of the greatest number, and caught the entire political class by surprise.

Neither the right in power, nor the center and the left in the opposition, have succeeded in recovering the anger of the streets: calls for rallies during the referendum campaign for either side do not have hardly drained more than a few hundred people.

On Wednesday, President Piñera called on Chileans to vote massively and thus hopes for “national reconciliation”.

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