In Chile, the draft new Constitution put to the test by the referendum

In Chile, the draft new Constitution put to the test by the referendum

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Some 15 million voters are called to the polls on Sunday, September 4, to vote on the country’s new Constitution which is to replace that inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The proposed text contrasts radically with the current fundamental law, by aiming in particular to better protect the poorest, and involves reforms that frighten a large part of the electorate.

The date of September 4 is particularly steeped in history in Chile : coups or revolutions took place on this day throughout the 19th centurye century. Several politicians then obtained their presidential victory on this date, like Salvador Allende in 1970. And the next September 4 could coincide with a new historical stage, the Chilean population having the possibility of sending to oblivion the Constitution imposed in 1980 by the military regime of Augusto Pinocheta text that has since been modified many times but never replaced.

The timid attempts launched after the return of democracy in 1990 never succeeded in materializing, notably coming up against the very high threshold of approval required within the two chambers of Parliament. A powerful social protest movement came to change the situation in October 2019: after several weeks of violent demonstrations, President Sebastian Pinera accepted one of the major demands emanating from the street, the adoption of a new fundamental law. On November 15, 2019, the country’s main political actors adopt an “agreement for social peace and the new Constitution”.

A year later, in October 2020, the population is also consulted and massive vote (78.28%) for the drafting of a new text. A Constituent Assembly of 155 members is then elected, on a parity basis, reserving in particular 17 seats for the indigenous peoples of the country. The final draft of the Constitution was delivered on July 4: a 178-page text, recently described as “humanist” in the daily Le Monde by Elisa Loncon Antileo, President of the Constituent Assembly. “New major principles are established there, including the most important which guarantee citizens the right to education, public health, a decent retirement, housing… – and democratic rights”, sums up this activist and scholar from the Mapuche people.

The recognition of indigenous peoples

The question of the rights of indigenous peoples has taken on increasing importance over the past few weeks. According to article 2, “sovereignty resides in the people of Chile formed by several nations”. The draft Constitution establishes the creation of indigenous regional autonomy and recognizes the existence of legal particularisms for indigenous peoples.

If the text warns against any form of “territorial secession”, the formula was not enough to reassure those who fear that indigenous peoples will benefit from a privileged status, starting by the Mapuche, who make up about 10% of the population. This community has been asking for decades for the restitution of its ancestral lands. And his demands could find a completely different echo with the new Constitution.

“This text provides that indigenous communities can vote on matters that concern them. But some have said that they will now be able to veto all laws in the country, which is completely false”, explains to France 24 l he Chilean academic Claudia Heiss, professor of the Faculty of Government of the University of Chile in Santiago, who has worked for many years on the question of constitutional reform.

A fervent defender of the text proposed for referendum, she underlines its considerable progress in terms of equality between the sexes, recognition of the rights of nature and consideration of the digital rights of citizens. But she knows well how much social issues – such as abortion, access to which remains very restricted in Chile – weigh on the choice of voters. The text thus provides that the State can “guarantee the conditions” for pregnancy, childbirth, maternity or voluntary termination of pregnancy which are both “voluntary and protected”. “On this question, as on other points, everything is a question of interpretation. The new Constitution does not give the details, it will then be up to the legislators to define the texts”, explains Claudia Heiss. And to add: “This Constitution finally opens a door. That of 1980 prevents progress in many sectors.”

A mandatory vote

There will be no shortage of projects if the new text is adopted, which intends to offer more protection in this country marked by deep social inequalities, after more than thirty years of neoliberalism. A profound transformation that would take many years and would lead to a change in Chilean political life. Because the text also proposes the disappearance, by 2026, of the Senate, which would leave room for a Chamber of Regions responsible for managing local issues as closely as possible.

“This Chamber will have very little power of control, and a concentration of powers will occur within the Chamber of Deputies,” fears political scientist and historian Patricio Gajardo, guest of a debate on the France 24 channel in Spanish. The academic also denounces the “illusions” of a text which promises many social advances without giving the slightest track of financing, while the local economy is experiencing a slowdown in 2022. And the “right to decent and suitable housing” is presented as a scarecrow by certain detractors of this draft Constitution who do not hesitate to threaten expropriations.

The intense political debate of the past two months, punctuated by numerous waves of disinformation, has highlighted the fear felt by many voters in the face of a text of which they fear certain measures. The front of the refusal is wide and even includes representatives of the centre-left opposing this version. The majority of voters also express their intention to reject it, most of the surveys anticipating a large victory for the “rechazo” camp, with around 10 points in advance.

The turnout will be a determining factor in this election, which, for the first time in the history of Chile, will be compulsory for all people over the age of 18, with the key to a fine for those who do not not fulfill their electoral duty. The expected mobilization of the youngest should work in favor of the approval of the new Constitution. If the “I approve” prevails, the 1980 text will be replaced and transitional provisions will come into force. Conversely, in the event of rejection, the new president Gabriel Boric will have the very difficult task of trying to launch a new constitutional process.

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