In Chile, the draft new Constitution was tested in a referendum

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About 15 million voters were called to the polls on Sunday, September 4, to vote on the country’s new Constitution that will replace the one inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The proposed text is very different from the current basic law, by focusing in particular on better protection of the poorest, and involves reforms that have scared a large part of the electorate.

The date of September 4 is particularly rich in the history of Chile: coups or revolutions took place on this day throughout the 19e century. Many politicians have won their presidential victory on this date, such as Salvador Allende in 1970. And the next September 4 may coincide with a new period in history, the Chilean population will tend to forget the Constitution imposed in 1980 by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet, a text that has since been modified several times but has never been replaced.

The timid attempts that were launched after the return of democracy in 1990 never succeeded in being realized, mainly because they came up against the very high threshold of approval required in both chambers of the Parliament. A strong social protest movement changed the situation in October 2019: after several weeks of violent demonstrations, President Sebastian Pinera accepted one of the major requests that came from the streets, the adoption of a new fundamental law. On November 15, 2019, the main political actors adopted an “agreement for social peace and the new Constitution”.

A year later, in October 2020, the population was also consulted and voted by a majority (78.28%) for the drafting of a new text. A Constituent Assembly of 155 members was elected, on a parity basis, reserving in particular 17 seats for the indigenous people 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, the president of the Constituent Assembly. “New major principles were established there, including the most important ones guaranteeing citizens the right to education, public health, a decent retirement, housing … – and democratic rights”, sums up this activist and scholars from the Mapuche people.

The recognition of the natives

The question of the rights of indigenous peoples has become more important in recent 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 particularism for indigenous peoples.

If the text warns against any form of “separation of territory”, the formula is not enough to reassure those who fear seeing the indigenous people benefit from a privileged status, starting with the Mapuche, who represent almost 10% of the population. This community has been asking for decades for the restoration of their heritage lands. And his demands will find a completely different echo in the new Constitution.

“This text provides that indigenous communities can vote on things that concern them. But others say that they can now veto all the laws of the country, which is completely false”, explained the France 24 l he Chilean academic Claudia Heiss, professor at the Faculty of Government at the University of Chile in Santiago, who has worked for many years on the question of constitutional reform.

An ardent defender of the text proposed for the referendum, he highlighted many improvements in terms of equality between the sexes, recognition of environmental rights and consideration of the digital rights of citizens. But he knows well how social issues – such as abortion, access to which remains limited in Chile – weigh on voters’ choices. The text thus provides that the State can “guarantee the conditions” for pregnancy, childbirth, childbirth or voluntary termination of pregnancy that are both “voluntary and protected”. “In this question, as in other points, everything is a question of interpretation. The new Constitution does not provide the details, then it is up to the legislators to interpret the texts”, explained Claudia Heiss. And to add: “This Constitution finally opens a door. 1980 prevented progress in many sectors.”

A mandatory vote

There will be no shortage of projects when the new text is adopted, which seeks to provide more protection to this country marked by deep social inequality, after more than thirty years of neoliberalism. A profound change that will take many years and will lead to a change in the political life of Chile. Because the text also proposes the absence, in 2026, of the Senate, leaving room for a Chamber of Regions responsible for managing local issues as closely as possible.

“This Chamber has very little control power, and a concentration of powers will occur within the Chamber of Deputies,” fears the political scientist and historian Patricio Gajardo, guest of a debate on the French channel 24 in Spanish. The academic also criticized the “illusions” of a text that promises many social improvements without providing even a small track of financing, while the local economy experiences a slowdown in 2022. And the “right to decent and appropriate housing” is presented as a threat by some detractors of this draft Constitution who do not hesitate to threaten expropriations.

The intense political debate of the last two months, fueled by waves of disinformation, has highlighted the fear that many voters feel in front of a text in which they are afraid of some measures. The front of denial is wide and even includes representatives of the center of the left who oppose this version. The majority of voters also expressed their intention to reject it, most surveys expect a big victory for the “rechazo” camp, with about 10 points in advance.

Participation will be a key factor in this election, which, for the first time in the history of Chile, should be compulsory for all people aged 18, with the key of a fine for those who cannot fulfill their election duties. The expected mobilization of the youth should work in favor of the approval of the new Constitution. If “I approve” prevails, the 1980 text will be replaced and the transitional provisions will be implemented. On the contrary, in the event of rejection, the new President Gabriel Boric has the very difficult mission of trying to launch a new constitutional process.

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