Dead letter: On Chile referendum

Last year, when Chile was shaken by mass protests, the conservative President, Sebastián Piñera, agreed to hold a referendum on rewriting the country’s Constitution, introduced during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, in a bid for calm. On Sunday, 78% of Chileans voted in favour of replacing the charter, which the protesters say was the main hurdle in introducing social and economic reforms, with a new document. Since its transition to democracy in 1990, Chile has amended the Constitution — principally written by the Pinochet-aide, Jaime Guzmán, and approved in a fraudulent plebiscite in 1980 — to take away many of its anti-democratic features. But the document, which has enshrined the conservative free-market philosophies of the Milton Friedman school, stayed on. It allowed the private sector to thrive and helped the economy expand. But it also led to the concentration of wealth in a minuscule minority, triggering social tensions. Protests erupted last year over a small rise in metro fares but it soon snowballed into a public agitation demanding reforms — an abolition of the private pension fund system, implemented by Gen. Pinochet, an increase in investments in education and health care, and a strengthening of the rights of the indigenous communities. The protesters also demanded an overhaul of the Constitution as it was impossible to introduce far-reaching reforms with the current charter. With Sunday’s plebiscite results, they have won the first stage.

Replacing the Constitution is going to be a two-year process. Next year, Chileans will elect a 155-member Assembly to draft the new document, which will then be put to a plebiscite in 2022. Half the delegates will be women. Political factions are still debating whether seats in the Assembly should be reserved for the indigenous groups. It may not be a smooth process given that different political factions represent different ideas and interests. The new Constitution is also expected to be a heated political issue, with the general elections next year. But despite the political and procedural challenges, it offers a fresh opportunity for Chile to say goodbye to a dark era. Gen. Pinochet came to power in 1973 after a U.S.-backed coup against Chile’s elected President, Salvador Allende. In the 17 years he was in power, Pinochet, who died in 2006, unleashed a reign of terror, resulting in the executions of thousands and the detention and torture of many more. The biggest problem with the present Constitution has been its origins. Now, through a democratic process, Chileans can bury the document and introduce a legitimate charter, which is an imperative for any modern democracy. It also offers them an opportunity to right the systemic wrongs of the past and chart out a more inclusive economic and social system that works not just for the government elites and the business classes but also for all Chileans.


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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 10:13:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/dead-letter-the-hindu-editorial-on-chile-referendum/article32957592.ece

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