Constitutional Change in Chile

By HANNA BAJWA

Last year’s Chilean street demonstrations shook political power and promoted a constitutional change to replace the past constitution, drafted under Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Originally triggered by a 4-cent metro-fare hike in the capital, Santiago, it quickly became a symbol of how the nation’s political elite were out of touch with the needs of everyday Chileans. The wave of social unrest had left 30 people dead and thousands wounded, and highlighted the anger from Chileans about the high levels of inequality within their country.


However, exactly a year to the day a very different scene took place in Chile as thousands of citizens rushed to the streets in celebration at the fact that more than three-quarters of the votes counted in Sunday’s referendum had opted for a new constitution drafted by citizens. A constitution that will hopefully resolve decades of inequality and shape the path for a better future for generations to come. Unlike others in Latin America, Chile does not codify things like social rights, women’s rights, Indigenous rights, water rights, and more. The public’s hope is that the new document will reflect local and regional needs, as well as provide for a more inclusive society.


The old constitution has been credited with making Chile one of Latin America’s economic success stories. Principally written by Pinochet adviser Jaime Guzmán, the 1980 constitution enshrined the neoliberal philosophies of the Chicago Boys, a group of Chilean conservatives mentored by US economist Milton Friedman. The free-market principles led to a booming economy yet only a minority was able to take advantage of good education, health, and social security services, while others were forced to rely on sometimes meagre public alternatives. 


After transitioning to democracy in 1990, Chile’s market-friendly business environment, framed in part by the Constitution, attracted foreign investment. The country’s economy grew consistently and saw poverty go down. But this came at the cost of an acute concentration of wealth and growing inequality. Last year, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America estimated that nearly a quarter of Chile’s total income goes to 1 percent of Chile’s population.


Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera, whose popularity ratings plummeted to record lows during the unrest and have remained in the doldrums, in a speech broadcast after voting concluded on Sunday, said: “Until now, the constitution has divided us. From today, we must all work together so that the new constitution is the great framework of unity, stability and future.” For many Chileans, this vote represents a goodbye to a dictatorship-era constitution, and a tentative welcome to a new beginning that people feel is more fitting for a modern democracy. 


Those against the change of constitution warned the two-year redrafting could provoke a period of uncertainty, disrupting public life and threatening Chile’s economic stability. Political and social groups have a two-month window to nominate candidates to form the constitutional assembly. In April, the public will elect 155 members, with equal numbers of men and women —the world’s first constitution to achieve gender parity. Until the protests last year, the idea of a new Constitution was not on anyone’s agenda and the fact Chile is now discussing a new Constitution is a victory of the social movement. Chile's grassroots civil society, which, without a visible leader or links to political parties, had taken on not only the Chilean government but also the whole entrenched system.


The question everyone is asking is if this new constitution is likely to change years of Chile’s unequal past. While many experts say that this is only the first step towards change, it is not the first time that Chileans have achieved change through means of a referendum. In October 1988, Chileans voted "no" to General Pinochet extending his military rule for another eight years. 


What are the next steps for Chilean citizens? Voters will return to the ballot boxes on 11 April 2021 to choose the 155 people who will make up the convention which will draw up the new constitution. The convention will have nine months, with the option of a one-time extension of three months, to come up with a new text. Once the draft is ready, voters must decide whether they accept the new charter in an obligatory  referendum in 2022. The new draft must be approved by a majority to replace the 1980 charter. Whilst many Chileans worry following last year’s unrest, the thumping mandate to change the course of the country offers nothing if not a glimpse of hope for a more equal nation. 


Image - Flickr (Diego Correa)



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