A 6 March 2023 photo in Santiago, Chile, of the first session of a panel of experts that is tasked with preparing a preliminary draft of a new Chile constitution. EFE/Elvis Gonzalez/File

Chile faces new constituent assembly vote 4 years after massive social unrest

By Maria M.Mur

A 4 September 2022 photo of a man voting in Santiago, Chile, during a referendum on the draft of a new Chilean constitution. EFE/Elvis Gonzalez

Santiago, May 2 (EFE).- Chile’s search for a new societal model following a massive 2019 uprising against socioeconomic inequality hit a major roadblock last year when voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed constitution to replace their dictatorship-era charter.

But a new major milestone comes Sunday when Chileans head to the polls to elect the 50 members of a new Constitutional Convention.

Momentum was clearly on the side of the progressive left when in an October 2020 plebiscite nearly 80 percent of voters opted to replace the constitution inherited from the 1973-1990 right-wing military regime.

A 4 September 2022 photo showing people celebrating the results of a referendum in which Chileans overwhelmingly rejected a new proposed constitution. EFE/Elvis Gonzalez

Subsequently, a Constitutional Convention vote was held in May 2021, leading to the election of a majority of independent and progressive candidates.

Gabriel Boric, Chile’s most leftist president since Salvador Allende (overthrown via coup in 1973 by military rebel forces led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet), was then elected in November 2021.

But public opinion later turned against the assembly and its draft constitution, which would have characterized Chile as a plurinational state, established autonomous indigenous territories and provided full gender parity at all public institutions and companies.

That text was rejected by 62 percent of voters in a referendum in September of last year, prompting Chile’s political class to set another constituent assembly process in motion, albeit one with very different characteristics.

“We’d become accustomed to a lot of stability in Chile, but the long road to a new constitution has defied that image,” Benjamin Gedan, director of the Washington DC-based Wilson Center think tank’s Latin America Program, told Efe.

Nevertheless, Chile “has shown itself to be a country that can channel social unrest through democratic processes.”

Estefania Andahur, a member of Chile’s Network of Political Scientists, told Efe that there is now much less enthusiasm surrounding the drafting of a new constitution than before.

She said that whereas four years ago there was an “eagerness to organize,” people are now much more concerned about problems such as inflation and violent crime.

Cristian Ovando of Chile’s University of Tarapaca, for his part, said “fatigue” has set in due to a number of factors, citing the “psychosocial cost of the unrest and the pandemic” and the failure of the first constituent process.

A key difference in the new process will be the role played by a committee of 24 congressionally designated experts who are tasked with preparing a preliminary draft of the new constitution.

The 50 members of the Constitutional Convention who are elected on Sunday will then have five months to make modifications to that text before citizens eventually vote on the final proposed constitutional draft in a Dec. 17 referendum.

Critics say the Convention members will have too little room to maneuver because they will have to stay within the limits of 12 constitutional bases that were laid out in a cross-party accord known as the “Agreement for Chile.”

Those principles include the declaration of Chile as a “social and democratic state governed by the rule of law,” the recognition of indigenous peoples as part of the “Chilean nation” and affirmation that the legislative branch has two chambers: a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies.

“There’s very little interest, and that will be reflected in the turnout. It will be lower than in the September plebiscite, which was historically high, only comparable to the 1988 vote against Pinochet,” Rene Jara of the University of Santiago told Efe.

Most polls point to Chile’s right wing being the big winner of Sunday’s Constitutional Convention elections, although it remains to be seen how many seats will be won by the right-wing populist Republican Party, which had no representation in the previous constituent assembly and supports the current constitution that favors the privatization of basic services.

According to the University of Chile’s Octavio Avendaño, the delay in resolving the country’s constitutional problem can be traced to a fundamental misreading of the 2019 protests as an anti-free market and leftist movement, “when in reality that’s not what it was.”

The social unrest that was initially triggered by a subway fare hike “was many things, and the demands were very broad-based,” he said. “The majority haven’t yet been addressed, but we’ve arrived at a state of dissipation and lethargy.” EFE