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78% Chileans Voted to Draft New Constitution: Another Step Towards Democracy

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Marcel Man




On 25th October 2020, millions of Chileans voted in the 2020 Chilean national plebiscite. The results were in favour of the rewrite of a brand-new constitution. The exultant crowds commemorated the momentous news upon hearing the announcement that 78% of the voters supported the replacement of the current “illegitimate” charter with origins dating back to the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.[1]


What was happening in Chile?

The decision to allow for the referendum was made by Chile’s centre-right president, Sebastián Piñera, in November 2019, attributable to the daily demonstrations and strikes nationwide. The protests were evoked by last year’s rise in the Santiago Metro's subway fare, which soon grew to encompass the increased cost of living, privatization, and inequality enshrined in Pinochet’s constitution. In effect, the price of a ride on the capital’s metro system is raised by 30 pesos, or about USD $0.04. In response to this, protests began in the capital, taking the form of an initial coordinated fare evasion campaign led by secondary school students.[2]


Whilst the majority of the protests started peacefully, some groups had thrown rocks and firebombs at riot police officers. Consequently, their violence was met with excessive force of volleys of tear gas and water cannon blasts. Piñera had described the protesters as a “mighty and unrelenting enemy” who have no respect for anyone and anything, saying that the country was at “war”.[3] He subsequently declared a state of emergency, sending military out onto the streets and installing a curfew in cities across the nation for the first time since the end of the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet’s rule. In addition, security forces fired tear gases, rubber bullets and water cannons throughout the month, with the turmoil causing the death of at least 22 civilians and more than 2,000 injured. Accusations of police brutality even led to the United Nations to send a team to investigate these human rights violations.[4]


What is the Referendum all about?

The two-question referendum was the first time in the nation’s history where all citizens were given a voice and a vote in the drafting of their own sovereign future. The first question asks whether or not the people want a new constitution to be drawn up, and it has been answered with a positive majority. The second question, additionally, asks voters to vote on the body responsible for drafting it. A “Mixed Constitutional Convention” will establish a body made up in equal parts of members elected by popular vote and current legislators, whereas a “Constitutional Convention” will consist exclusively of representatives elected by popular vote.[5] 78.99 per cent of the voters that turned up voted for a “Constitutional Convention”.[6] Thus, voters will return on 11th April 2021 to elect 155 members that make up the constitutional convention, hopefully ensuring that Chileans obtain a constitution that protects the rights of all people. The Chilean National Congress and civil society will also iron out the technical aspects of the referendum, such as the size of the constitutional assembly, its representativeness and how indigenous populations will be accounted for.[7]


Indeed, a new constitution will not immediately rectify the plethora of issues from the dictatorship-era that prompted the recent crisis. To Chileans, however, a new charter is a great first step to potentially redistribute the current power held by the private sector, as well as protect human rights and social welfare.[8]



 

Sources [1] Katy Watson, ‘Jubilation as Chile Votes to Rewrite Constitution’ BBC News (26 October 2020) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-54687090> accessed 25 November 2020 [2] John Bartlett, ‘Chile Students' Mass Fare-Dodging Expands into City-Wide Protest’ The Guardian (Santiago, 18 October 2019) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/18/chile-students-mass-fare-dodging-expands-into-city-wide-protest> accessed 25 November 2020 [3] Emilia Rojas-Sasse, ‘Opinion: Chile Protests Shine Light on Economic Inequality’ Deutsche Welle (22 October 2019) <https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-chile-protests-shine-light-on-economic-inequality/a-50924566> accessed 25 November 2020 [4] ‘Chile Protests: UN Accuses Security Forces of Human Rights Abuses’ BBC News (13 December 2019) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-50779466> accessed 25 November 2020 [5] ‘What is in stake for Chile on this Sunday's national plebiscite?’ International IDEA (23 October 2020) <https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/what-stake-chile-sundays-national-plebiscite> accessed 1 December 2020 [6] ‘National Plebiscite in Chile: Voters approve drawing up a new constitution and that it be done by a Constitutional Convention. What are the next steps?’ International IDEA (2 November 2020) <https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/national-plebiscite-chile-voters-approve-drawing-new-constitution-and-it-be-done> accessed 1 December 2020 [7] Jennifer M. Piscopo and Peter Siavelis, ‘Chile Abolishes Its Dictatorship-Era Constitution in Groundbreaking Vote for a More Inclusive Democracy’ Australian Times News (28 October 2020) <https://www.australiantimes.co.uk/news/chile-abolishes-its-dictatorship-era-constitution-in-groundbreaking-vote-for-a-more-inclusive-democracy> accessed 25 November 2020 [8] Kirsten Sehnbruch, ‘Chile's latest steps towards true democracy are a beacon for the world’ The Guardian (28 October 2020) <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/28/chile-democracy-pinochet-constitution> accessed 25 November 2020

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