Chileans choose body to rewrite dictatorship-era Constitution

SANTIAGO (AFP) – Independent candidates and leftist parties in Chile were in the lead on Sunday (May 16), with just over half the ballots counted after two days of voting for a body of 155 people to rewrite the country’s dictatorship-era Constitution.

A new Constitution was a key demand of protesters who took to the streets in 2019 in weeks of demonstrations that left several dozen dead but paved the way for what some label as Chile’s most important election since its return to democracy 31 years ago.

Chile’s existing Constitution dates from 1980, enacted at the height of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 rule, and is widely blamed for the country’s deep societal inequalities.

It promotes private enterprise in all sectors of the economy – including education, health and pensions – in a country ranked as one of the most unequal among advanced economies.

This inequality was one of the main drivers of the October 2019 protests that resulted in the government agreeing a month later to a referendum on a new Constitution.

That plebiscite, initially scheduled for April last year but delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, took place on October 25 last year.

Eighty per cent voted for a new Constitution to be drawn up by a body of elected members.

Voting for ‘change’

With just over 50 per cent of the vote counted on Sunday, candidates of the right – which is in power – captured just 21.37 per cent of the vote, compared  with 33.19 per cent for candidates aligned to leftist parties and the rest going to independents.

The result went contrary to predictions that independents – with a broad platform of individual campaign promises and programmes – would likely not draw meaningful support.

Parties on the left broadly seek a Constitution guaranteeing greater state control of mineral and other natural resources – mostly privatised since the dictatorship – and more public spending on education, health, pensions and social welfare.

Those on the right largely defend the capitalist, free-market system they thank for Chile’s decades of economic growth.

The strong outcome for independents makes it unclear which way the needle will swing.

On Sunday, Mr Guillermo Guzman, a 57-year-old architect, said he voted “in the hope of getting change for the country… so that we can build a new Constitution that is very different to the one left to us by the dictatorship”.

Polls say about 60 per cent of Chileans blame the Pinochet-era Constitution for creating a system that benefits only the elites.

“It is like we are really starting to get rid of ‘Pinocho,’ his shadow, his legacy, everything,” added 62-year-old civil servant Carmela Urquiza, referring to the dictator by a nickname given by his detractors.

Half are women

Some 14 million people were eligible to vote on Saturday and Sunday for 155 members of the “constitutional convention”. Voter turnout was about 37 per cent, according to preliminary figures.

A total of 1,373 candidates were in the running, including actors, writers, teachers, social workers, lawyers and traditional politicians.

In a world first, half the candidates are – by design – women.

The 155-member drafting group, which will have nine months to come up with a new founding law for Chile, will also be composed 50 per cent of women, and 17 seats are reserved for representatives of indigenous communities.

The Constitution draft will be approved or rejected next year in a mandatory national vote.

Chile has the highest per capita income and the third-most multimillionaires in Latin America. But the working and even upper-middle classes live with heavy debt, often to pay for schooling and private pensions.

Voters also elected regional governors, mayors and local councillors – usually a litmus test for presidential elections, next due in November.

The vote was held over two days to reduce crowding amid a Covid-19 outbreak that has resulted in more than 1.2 million recorded cases and nearly 30,000 reported deaths in the country of 19 million people.

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