Citizens speak up
Demonstration for a new constitution in Santiago de Chile in January 2020.
Ahead of a referendum set for 26 April on whether to have a new constitution and who should write it, Chile is seeing an explosion in public discussion about the country’s future. This surge in public debate is an encouraging sign, if one considers the recent wave of violent protests in Chile, and the general atmosphere of mistrust of politicians.
Chile has started a process to replace its 1980 constitution, which was adopted during the rule of Augusto Pinochet, a military dictator. Critics say the current constitution has fostered growing income inequality and an inadequate social safety net.
The road to a new constitution will be a long one. Under a political agreement following violent street protests last November, Chileans will vote in April whether they want a new constitution. They will also decide whether the text should be drafted only by members elected directly to a constitutional convention, or by a mixed group of newly-elected members and members of the national Parliament.
If Chileans vote “yes” to a referendum – which seems likely – then a second vote in October will elect the members of the drafting group. A third vote, to be held in March 2022, will accept or reject the new constitution.
The agreement to hold a referendum helped to stop violent demonstrations last autumn against the government of Sebastián Piñera, the conservative President. Protesters had objected to the high cost and poor quality of public services, inadequate health care, the low level of pensions, income inequality and market-radical orthodoxy in general.
Accordingly, much of the current debate deals with bread-and-butter issues such as raising the minimum wage, increasing the basic state pension and reducing prices for public services. Other discussions focus on broader issues of income equality and democratic participation.
The vote in April to draft a new constitution would still leave open whether market competition is to be rejected as a guiding principle, or whether it will go along with a stronger social safety net. The answer depends in part on who is elected to write the constitution.
Debating the future
A variety of citizens’ groups has stepped forward to argue for direct representation of the people in a newly elected constitutional convention.
Women’s groups, for example, want to see more women involved. They launched the “Never Again Without Us” campaign, which advocates for a stronger female voice. Women hold only 35 out of 155 seats in the current parliament. If women were represented in the constitutional convention in proportion to their share of the population, that would be a revolutionary leap.
Indigenous peoples are also pushing for a stronger say. They have the support of urban groups, which have joined indigenous organisations on questions of restitution of land, cessation of violence and environmental protection. Most of these groups say all members of the constitutional convention should be directly elected, to ensure the new constitution reflects people’s real concerns.
One sign of the strong public interest in the topic is that people are already registering to vote. Some 367,000 people have done so, and 115,000 of them have registered as new voters. Another indication is that, when protests engulfed the country in November, the number one choice of reading material was the current constitution. Similarly, last December 1,200 people attended an event in the Biobio Theatre, the largest such venue in the country, to hear a conversation among law experts.
Public debate is intensifying, while trust in the political class seems to be further eroding. A nationwide survey last December gave President Piñera’s government a six percent approval rating, and congress – which is mainly in opposition – a three percent approval rating. The referendum will obviously be very important – and it is a good sign that Chileans are increasingly inclined to talk with each other in search of solutions.
Javier A. Cisterna Figueroa is a journalist and lives in Concepción.