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LATIN AMERICA | 17-05-2021 10:04

Chileans opt for 'outsiders' to draft post-Pinochet constitution

Chile votes for members of a new 155-member body to draft new constitution. President Sebastián Piñera says outcome of election shows his government and political parties are not "attuned to the demands and aspirations of citizens."

Chileans voted at the weekend for people not aligned to political parties to form the bulk of a 155-member body that will rewrite a dictatorship-era constitution widely blamed for deep social inequality.

A new constitution was a key demand of 2019 protests that left several dozen dead but paved the way for what has been labelled Chile's most important election since its return to democracy 31 years ago.

The outcome of the vote on Saturday and Sunday was interpreted as a rebuke of the ruling right and of traditional political parties.

President Sebastián Piñera said the outcome showed that his government and political parties were not "attuned to the demands and aspirations of citizens."

"We are being challenged by new expressions and new leadership," he said.

Independent candidates – with a broad platform of individual campaign promises and programmes – had not been predicted to get much traction but ended up winning the biggest tranche of votes, with about 40 percent.

With nearly 90 percent of the vote counted, candidates aligned to leftist parties received a third of ballots, while the right – in power in Chile – garnered just over 20 percent.

Most of the independents "are outsiders, without membership of a party and critical of the traditional parties," said Marcelo Mella, a political scientist at the University of Santiago.

"The political system is being reconfigured," added Mireya Davila of the University of Chile's Institute of Public Affairs. "The electoral force of the independents is much greater than previously thought and this confirms that the citizenry is fed up with the traditional parties."

Left or right?

The country's existing Magna Carta dates from 1980, enacted at the height of dictator Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 rule.

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.

On October 25 last year, 80 percent voted for a new constitution to be drawn up by a body of elected members.

Parties on the left broadly campaigned for a new constitution guaranteeing greater state control of mineral and other natural resources, 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 – including many actors, writers, teachers and lawyers who had taken part in the social uprising – makes it unclear which way the needle will swing.

"It is... complex because it will require negotiating with each of the independents and dealing with each of their positions," in the drafting process, said Davila.

Pinochet's shadow

On Sunday, Guillermo Guzmán, 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 percent of Chileans blame the constitution for creating a system that benefits the elite.

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

About 37 percent of the 14 million eligible voters turned out, according to preliminary figures.

A total of 1,373 candidates were in the running, and in a world first, half were – 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 percent 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 are heavily indebted, often to pay for schooling and private pensions.

Voters also chose regional governors, mayors and local councilors in a litmus test for presidential elections due in November.

The vote was held over two days to reduce crowding during 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.

by Paulina Abramovich, AFP

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