After a wave of sustained protests, the people of Chile have voted overwhelmingly in favour of rewriting the South American country’s nearly four-decade-old constitution, which dates back to the era of military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet.
Jubilant pro-reform protesters flooded the streets in celebration on Sunday night after a resounding 78 per cent of people voted ‘yes’ in the referendum that was conducted following mass demonstrations against economic inequality across the country.
Chileans also voted to elect an assembly of 155 members to draw up the new constitution. The body will not include any active lawmakers and will have a total of nine months, with the option of a one-time extension of three months, to finalise the new document.
So, why did protests break out across the country?
Weeks of protests against economic inequality led up to Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s decision to hold the referendum in November last year. The demonstrations first took place in October after a small hike in metro rail fares in the capital city of Santiago.
But the student-led protests that took place then were on a much smaller scale. Many students were filmed jumping over turnstiles without purchasing tickets as an act of protest. But as tensions rose and incidents of arson and violence were reported, President Piñera declared a state of emergency and deployed military troops to repress the protests.
It was after the troops began to fill the streets that thousands of ordinary Chileans joined the demonstrations and the string of youth-led protests grew into a full-fledged movement. The military presence reminded older citizens of the repressive rule under General Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.
Hundreds of thousands stormed the streets and demanded sweeping change in their society. Apart from a new constitution, the protesters also called for reforms to the country’s privatised education, health and pension sectors — which they argued was the main reason behind the rampant economic inequality in the country.
At least 30 people were killed in the unrest and thousands more were injured.
Why are Chileans demanding constitutional reforms in the first place?
The existing charter was drafted during the rule of dictator and military leader Pinochet without any popular inputs. The constitution was passed in a fraudulent plebiscite held in 1980, and has widely been blamed for the inequities that exist in Chilean society even today.
The constitution laid down an electoral system that has for years limited political change by favouring incumbents and limiting the power of the left in the country. While an economic boom in the 1990s reduced poverty, it also vastly widened the gap between the rich and poor.
Pinochet ultimately lost power in a 1988 referendum, but the dictatorship-era constitution lived on. On Sunday, Chileans finally voted to scrap the constitution — a move that could potentially transform politics in the country, which has thus far been regarded as one of the most stable and wealthy Latin American nations.
How did the Piñera-led government respond to the protests?
Despite the widespread protests against his conservative-leaning administration, Piñera took many weeks to agree to a referendum in 2019. Eventually, the government agreed to constitutional reform before finally giving in to the demand for a fresh constitution.
In November, the ruling alliance and opposition together released a 12-point ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’, which laid down the steps for rewriting the constitution with greater participation by the citizens.📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
Following the referendum this Sunday, President Piñera congratulated the voters on their victory but warned that this was just the beginning of a much longer process. “Starting today, we must all collaborate so that the new constitution is the great framework for unity, stability and the future,” he said.
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What did Chileans vote on?
During the referendum held this Sunday, voters were asked if they wanted a new constitution and also what kind of body should be responsible for drafting the revamped charter. According to election officials, nearly 7.5 million Chileans showed up to cast their vote.
After the votes were counted, it was found that 78 per cent were in favour of rewriting the constitution, while a meagre 21.76 per cent rejected the change. Around 79 per cent voted in support of the new constitution being drawn up by a body which will be entirely elected by popular vote.
What happens next?
Like Piñera pointed out earlier this week, the referendum was the first step of a long-drawn process. Voters will cast their votes once again on April 11 next year to elect the 155 members of the new constituent assembly.
The body will then have nine months to draft the constitution, with the option of a three-month extension. The new constitution will then be introduced following another referendum in 2022.
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