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LATIN AMERICA | 04-07-2021 21:10

Work starts on Chile's first post-dictatorship constitution

New 155-member body charged with writing a new constitution installed in Chile, but swearing-in ceremony overshadowed by protests.

 

Chile on Sunday installed a new 155-member body charged with writing a new constitution meant to pry power from the hands of the elite and spread it more equitably in the South American nation.

But the historic process was delayed for hours after protesters and a special police unit clashed in the streets of Santiago near where the ceremony was held. 

Election official Carmen Gloria Valladares read out, one-by-one, the names of the 155 members elected in May. They included lawyers, teachers, a housewife, scientists, social workers and journalists. Half are women, and 17 represent indigenous groups. The youngest is 21.

But after the meeting opened with the singing of the national anthem, the sound of protesters' whistles and shouts of "No more repression!" could be heard from nearby. When some demonstrators approached Valladares' table, sharply raising tensions, she temporarily suspended the session.

"We want to have a celebration of democracy, not a problem," she said. 

There were also demonstrations around the Plaza Italia, the epicentre of the social-justice protests that rocked Chile in October 2019 and led ultimately to the decision to create the new body to draft a constitution to replace the one written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

That earlier document, though amended in the 30 years of Chilean democracy, was widely unpopular, viewed as a source of social inequality in a country ranked as one of the most unequal among advanced economies. 

Some 5,000 people gathered Sunday in the Plaza Italia.

"I greatly hope that this process will help us build a country for all," 47-year-old bank employee Carolina Vergara told AFP. 

 

Diversity

The diversity of the Constitutional Convention's 155 members – including many left-leaning independents with no experience in public office, and with no single group holding veto power – could make compromise and concessions unavoidable. 

Independent candidates swept the May elections, taking 46 percent of the seats as voters turned their backs on traditional political parties.

Centre-left parties, who broadly canvassed on greater state control of natural resources and more social spending, received a third of the votes cast.

The right garnered just over 20 percent, meaning it will have no veto on the body that requires a two-thirds majority to approve the draft constitution.

This same diversity has fuelled concerns in some that the group may get bogged down in endless debate and find itself unable to satisfy people's expectations.

"Diversity is a good thing but it also presents challenges that will require concessions" for any agreement to be reached, said constitutional law expert Javier Couso from the University Diego Portales.

Yet others remain hopeful. For the first time, "The entire country is represented, and they are going to sit down to talk – to talk about the country we want," Felipe Berrios, an influential Jesuit priest, told AFP.  

The convention will have nine months – with a single three-month extension possible – to complete its work. The resulting document will then be submitted to ratification in a national plebiscite, with all citizens required to vote. 

 

Private enterprise

Chile's existing constitution dates from 1980, enacted at the height of Pinochet's 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.

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. 

There is low satisfaction with the quality of life.

Constitutional convention member Rodrigo Rojas Vade told AFP he would seek to address the concerns of the Chilean "who is tired of receiving orders, who does not make it to the end of the month, who dies in hospital without care, the child who goes to bed with the pain of hunger every night."

His group, the People's List, supports water as a basic right, public health, free education, decent pensions and fortified human rights guarantees.

"To this day we live in a society that is restricted in the exercise of rights and freedoms because we still have a constitution inherited from this fratricidal period we lived through," said Manuel Woldarsky, another People's List representative.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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