New Constitution, New Dawn for Chile?

Demonstrators burned a Chilean flag during a protest against police in reaction to a video that appears to show an officer pushing a youth off a bridge the previous day at a protest, in Santiago, Chile, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AFP) — Nineteen months after Chileans took to the streets to demand fundamental change in weeks-long protests that claimed dozens of lives, the fight to replace the country’s dictatorship-era constitution continues at the ballot box this weekend.

Over two days on Saturday and Sunday, Chileans will elect a body of 155 constitution-writers in a vote considered by many to be the most important since the country’s return to democracy 31 years ago.

The existing Magna Carta 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.

An OECD report in February said “persistently high inequality” was a key challenge for Chile, with 53 percent of households classed as economically vulnerable and the poorest 20 percent of households earning a mere 5.1 percent of the income.

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

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

The outcome was unequivocal: more than 80 percent voted for a new constitution to be drawn up by a body made up entirely of elected members.

– Symbolic –

Seven months later, more than 1,300 candidates are in the running to become a part of history.

Some 14 million people are eligible to cast their ballot in the weekend vote also delayed by several weeks due to a surge in coronavirus infections.

“It is an election that is symbolically tremendously important,” said Carmen Le Foulon, Center of Public Studies (CEP).

Analysts say the election will be a battle between candidates from leftist parties and rightist ones, 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.

– Gender parity –

There are no opinion polls, but observers expect leftist parties to take most of the spots on the “constitutional convention.”

However, “this in no way means that (the left) will bulldoze over the right-wing parties” in the constitution-drafting process, political scientist Mauricio Morales of the University of Talca told AFP.

Leftist parties are deeply divided on issues of economic policy, religion and other matters, and spread over 69 electoral lists, while the right is unified on a single list that includes the ruling coalition as well as far-right parties.

This division could end up benefiting the right in a proportional electoral system that rewards unified coalitions, Morales said.

Kenneth Bunker, a political scientist at the Tresquintos political studies firm, expects the right will be punished amid widespread anger at the government over its handling of the pandemic and perceived delays in delivering social assistance.

In a world first, half the candidates are women — by design — as will be the 155-member drafting group that will have nine months to birth a new founding law for Chile, which must be approved in a fresh vote.

Seventeen seats on will be 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.

Campaigning has been complicated amid a Covid-19 outbreak that has resulted in more than 1.2 million cases and 27,000 deaths in the country of 19 million people.

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By Paulina ABRAMOVICH

© Agence France-Presse

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