Chileans vote for body to rewrite dictatorship-era constitution

Chileans vote for body to rewrite dictatorship-era constitution

A woman casts her vote in Santiago during elections to chose a commission to rewrite the country's constitution, on March 15, 2021.
A woman casts her vote in Santiago during elections to chose a commission to rewrite the country's constitution, on March 15, 2021.

SANTIAGO: Chileans head to the polls Sunday in a second day of voting to elect 155 people who will rewrite the country's dictatorship-era constitution in a bid to address deep-seated social inequality that gave rise to deadly protests in 2019.

Some 14 million people are eligible to vote this weekend in what many consider to be Chile's most important election since its return to democracy 31 years ago.

More than three million people, or approximately 20.4% of the electorate, cast their ballot Saturday, according to the country's Electoral Service.

"I hope that we have a constitution that captures the soul of our nation," President Sebastian Pinera said after casting his ballot in the capital Santiago.

Silvia Navarrete, a 35-year-old economist, was at a Santiago polling place with her young daughter in her arms. She said she had voted for a system that "works for everyone, allowing all voices to be heard" and ensuring "that rights and duties are really fair for all human beings."

And 40-year-old university professor Carlos Huertas said his ballot went to candidates who had been active in "this social revolution" -- referring to the 2019 protests.

Chile's constitution dates from 1980, enacted at the height of dictator Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 rule, and is widely blamed for blocking equitable progress in a country ranked as one of the most unequal among advanced economies.

This inequality was one of the main drivers of the October 2019 protests, resulting a month later -- after 36 deaths -- in the government agreeing to a referendum on a new constitution.

That plebiscite, initially scheduled for April 2020 but delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, finally took place on October 25 last year.

And the outcome was unequivocal: 80% voted for a new constitution to be drawn up by a body made up entirely of elected members.

- Gender parity -

This weekend, more than 1,300 candidates are in the running to become a part of history.

Analysts say the election will be a battle between candidates from parties on the left and the right, with independents not expected to draw any meaningful support.

Parties on the left broadly seek greater state control of mineral and other natural resources -- mostly privatized since the dictatorship -- and more public spending on education, health, pensions and social welfare.

Those on the right, with a nod to the need to boost social support, largely defend the capitalist, free-market system they thank for Chile's decades of economic growth.

In a world first, half the candidates are -- by design -- women.

This will also be the case for the 155-member drafting group, which will have nine months to come up with a new founding law for Chile, which will be approved or rejected next year in a mandatory national vote.

Seventeen seats on the constitution-writing "convention" are reserved for indigenous representatives.

Voters will this weekend also elect regional governors, mayors and local councilors -- usually a litmus test for presidential elections, next due in November.

- Rich, but unequal -

Campaigning has been complicated amid a Covid-19 outbreak that has resulted in more than 1.2 million cases and nearly 30,000 deaths in the country of 19 million people, with the election's two-day format decided upon due to the pandemic.

Chile has one of South America's highest vaccination rates, with more than 48.5% of the 15.2 million targeted inhabitants having received two doses to date.

The country has the highest per capita income and the third most multimillionaires in Latin America. But the working and even upper-middle classes live with heavy debt, often to pay for schooling and private pensions.

An OECD report in February said "persistently high inequality" was a key challenge for Chile, with 53% of households classed as economically vulnerable and the poorest 20% of households earning a mere 5.1% of total income (in Thailand, the number is 7.7%).

There is a low level of satisfaction with quality of life.

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