Chile prepares for charter referendum

Chile prepares for charter referendum

Voters to decide fate of dictatorship-era constitution drawn up four decades ago

An activist wears a face mask reading “I approve, worthy Chile” ahead of Sunday’s upcoming referendum on a new Chilean constitution in Santiago. (Reuters Photo)
An activist wears a face mask reading “I approve, worthy Chile” ahead of Sunday’s upcoming referendum on a new Chilean constitution in Santiago. (Reuters Photo)

SANTIAGO: Chileans will go to the polls on Sunday to vote on whether they want to swap a constitution written during the Pinochet dictatorship four decades ago in favour of a new document written by an elected citizens’ body.

A new constitution was a key demand of demonstrators who have engaged in unprecedented social protests that broke out in October last year over inequality and elitism. A cross-party referendum deal emerged from the protests in December.

Those opposed to a new constitution argue it represents a “leap into the void” to change a document that has helped make Chile one of the region’s most stable free market economies.

Those in favour say the current text privileges private interests, and segments access to health, education and pensions by income.

Alejandro Werner, Western Hemisphere director of the International Monetary Fund, said on Thursday the process could herald “a new era in which the main elements that generated the Chilean success story … are maintained in terms of economic growth, but complemented by a social inclusion agenda”.

A downside risk, he added, was “a multiplicity of social policies without macroeconomic support”.

Polls suggest the campaign to approve a new charter will win two thirds of the vote.

Cristobal Bellolio, a political commentator who favours a new text, said it would ensure the “nation’s fingerprints”, rather than those of a small elite, were on its rulebook.

The concern, he added, was that some might expect a new draft to turn Chile into a benevolent welfare state overnight.

“I get the feeling there are many people thinking of the constitution as a government programme,” he said.

Chileans famously voted to end the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite.

The current constitution was drafted by Pinochet’s close adviser Jaime Guzman in 1980 and has only been tweaked by successive governments to reduce military and executive power.

Among those to reform it was liberal former president Ricardo Lagos. He told Reuters last week that Guzman made the draft deliberately watertight, meaning aspects like a flawed pension system and ban on collective bargaining were impossible to change.

Voters will be asked to approve or reject the drafting of a new constitution. Uniquely in Chilean history, they will also be asked if a fresh text — to be voted on in a second referendum — should be drafted by a constitutional convention of specially elected citizens or a mixed convention of lawmakers and citizens.

A recent spike in violent protests and nervousness about large public gatherings amid the coronavirus could dampen turnout. All Chileans are automatically registered to vote, but participation is voluntary.

Stringent security and sanitary measures have been rolled out in 2,715 polling stations across the nation of 18 million.

Surfaces have been sprayed with cleaning products containing nano-copper particles, a use of Chile’s key export enthusiastically championed by the government after research suggested it was particularly inhospitable to the coronavirus.

Soldiers will oversee voting while police will guard outside in case of further unrest.

Mariano Machado, a Latin America analyst with the risk analytics company Verisk Maplecroft, said a result calling for a new constitution drafted by a constitutional convention would help “contain” but not eradicate Chile’s underlying social unrest.

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