Chile’s New Constitution an Effort to End Past Abuses

Photo source: Council on Foreign Relations

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

A constitutional convention election happened in Chile in May 2021, after a 2020 national plebiscite was called, where majority of voters voted in favour of writing the new constitution.

Most of the members in the convention were independent candidates, there was gender equality in membership, and seventeen seats were reserved for Chilean indigenous people, who were allocated proportionally, according to the number of people identified in the 2017 census: seven seats for Mapuche, two for Aymara, and one each for Diaguita, Quechua, Atacameno, Colla, Chango, Rapa Nui, Kawesgar and Yaghan peoples. Originally, an additional seat was set for the Afro-Chilean tribal group, but the proposal didn't meet the assemblage for approval in Congress.

The reforms for the constitution might be the biggest political change in Chile in its history. The result of the constitutional convention election was a blow to the ruling right and other traditional parties, as the government failed to get one-third of the total seats to block the proposals for the new constitution. The left and the independents are now well balanced to restructure the distribution of power in the Chilean society, which means that the constitution would be far more progressive than the government anticipated. Given that the inequality in Chile is sky high, drafting of the new constitution would likely expand the horizons of the marginalised, but its leaders should follow a path to remove inequalities without altering Chile’s massive economic growth.

The deliberative body will draft the new constitution within a period of nine months, which may be extended for up to three more months. The draft text must be approved by at least two-thirds of its members, and subsequently ratified by an exit plebiscite. If there’s no agreement, within the established period of time, the current constitution approved in 1980 will remain in force.

The election had been a response to the October 2019 protests that originated in Santiago and spread to several other areas of Chile. Called as the 'biggest march in Chile', with over one million attendance, the 2019 movement had demanded President Pinera’s resignation. It had led to over two thousand arrests, twenty nine killings, and more than two thousand were also injured. There were cases of looting, riots, fare evasion, which led the president force to make reforms in education, healthcare and the pension system, resulting in the loss of three hundred thousand jobs, and $3.5 billion in the process. Several human rights groups had also alleged that there were cases of sexual abuse, eye mutilation and torture. The protests had continued till February 2020, until they again erupted in October 2020, when twenty five thousand protestors had gathered in various cities. Even in March 2021, there were protests involving three to five hundred people confronting the police, and vandalising of the surroundings.

Many Chileans believe that the ills of Chilean democracy lie within its old constitution which rests upon a neoliberal model. It was written amid a dictatorship and without citizen participation. The constitution had protected the authoritarian and military allies, and was designed to protect status quo. It gave senate seats to top military figures. The military also had the authority to choose heads of the armed forces, and the laws directed ten percent of the copper revenues to the military budget. The constitution had banned extreme left parties, and overrepresented conservative political parties. Despite a series of political reforms during 2000s, the constitution still favoured the military, business elites and the conservative elites.

For a new wave of change, Chile has the competency to embodiment these reforms. According to a Foreign Policy article by Michael Albertus: ‘Chile’s population on the whole is well educated, informed, and engaged. The country has a robust business sector, a track record of competent fiscal management, and considerable natural resources.’

There are several Chileans who demand, through their constituents, an end to the old pension system, which forced the employees to deposit their retirement savings in individual accounts handled by private companies. They are also demanding a right to good and effective public health and education, equal rights to women, water and property rights, central bank independence, labour policies, environmental regulations, and non-discrimination of minority groups. It is also a country where droughts have become rampant since a decade, forcing farmers to manage their activities through tanker truck water, also fueling a need for better water management system in its cities as well.

However, drafting the constitution also comes with newer challenges. Without a check on power, the left in Chile might use it indiscriminately against their political foes, and biasing the electoral rules in their favour, or will hamper the creation of political bodies that promote deliberation and due legal process. In other Latin American nations, such as Venezuela, what had happened is that the senate, judiciary and electoral commission got weakened after the revisions in 1999 and 2000. However, the worst came in the second term of Hugo Chavez when he tried to aggrandise power in 2012, which led to Venezuela’s economic collapse.

During these developments in Chile, some respite also came when a Mapuche woman, Elisa Loncon, a university professor was chosen to lead the constitutional delegation. Many watchers see it as an attempt to ameliorate the Mapuche conflict, the seeds of which were sown in the eighteenth century by the expansionist Chilean state and the European settlers. The police have killed several of its young men in confrontations since 2002. There has been a special law applied abusively and excessively to the Mapuche called the anti-terrorist law, which permits judges to keep Mapuche individuals in jail longer than the three-month limit established for other Chilean citizens. Pacifying the conflict with the indigenous peoples in Chile would be another feather in the cap for the progressives and other politicians, if anything of that sort happens in the future. Infact, in September 2020, President Sebastian Piñera, had formed a committee to discuss territorial conflicts and social development in the Mapuche dominated Araucanía. It is because rising support for the Mapuche cause was also seen during the 2020 protests, and due to the fact that Mapuche leaders accuse the state of resorting to draconian means, to punish the deeds of the few who have lately resorted to violence, while brushing aside the peaceful demands of the majority, and further assert that their ancestral land, known as Wallmapu, stretching from Chile’s Pacific seaboard across the Andes and over to the Argentine Atlantic coast, is being exploited by outsiders, and by extractive industries while the government fails to protect it.


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