SANTIAGO, Chile – On the evening of October 5, 1988, Eugenio García, a 36-year-old advertising professional, sat hunched over in front of a flickering television, eagerly awaiting news. That afternoon the elections had closed in a historic referendum: Chile would choose between another eight years of the repressive dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) or a transition to democracy.
García had been part of the team that led the NO campaign against Pinochet's continued rule. With a rainbow as a symbol, the campaign used its two 15-minute television slots each day to project an explosion of color, hope and forward thinking across the nation. His slogan? Chile, ¡la alegría ya viene !, or "happiness is coming!"
Shortly after 2 a.m. it was announced that the NO campaign had won with 56 percent of the vote and that Pinochet had reluctantly accepted the result. García went to bed exhausted, without realizing the size of the victory. He vividly remembers picking up a copy of La Tercera, one of the most important Chilean newspapers, a few days later and seeing on its front page the picture of a young man hugging a police officer. "At that time I really knew we had won," said 67-year-old García. "The victory not only set the wheels in motion for Pinochet's exit, it also indicated that a deeper reconciliation is possible."
Now, 32 years later and still haunted by the legacy of dictatorship, Chile is at a different crossroads. Since October last year, a visceral, cathartic and sometimes violent wave of protests centered on issues of socio-economic inequality has shaken the country to the core. The uprising paved the way for a period of introspection as coronavirus quarantines kicked in – and a constitutional referendum after they were lifted. Since the events of last October, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in months of unrest, demanding fundamental changes in the following areas: the pension system; public education; Environmental Protection; and the rights of indigenous peoples. The Pinochet-era Constitution of 1980 has increasingly become the target of protesters' anger. And now, on October 25th, Chile will hold a referendum on its replacement.
In the vote, postponed by the pandemic, the Chileans will be given two ballot papers. The first will ask voters if they want a new constitution (to which they can answer: "I agree" or "I disagree"). The second option offers two options for the type of body that can draft the new document (either a “mixed convention” or a “constitutional assembly”). In the former case, the assembly would be divided equally between seated parliamentarians and other citizens who stand for election. in the latter case the assembly would be elected entirely from civil society.
Although a vote is not permitted within two weeks of a vote, the last polls before that date indicate that a majority of Chileans – around two thirds – are in favor of a new constitution, and a narrower majority for the civilian population as well.
"In Chile we never had a consensus on the fundamental issues, so constitutions were imposed either by force or by exclusion – and in the case of the 1980 document, both," said historian Verónica Valdivia, professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago. said. Chile had several constitutions, most of which were drawn up without popular input. The Pinochet-era document was written by a specialist group near Pinochet. The constitution has been reformed several times since then, most profoundly in 2005 under the government of former President Ricardo Lagos. However, critics suggest that the changes did not go far enough to fundamentally democratize the document.
In particular, they highlight some blatant welfare deficiencies in the constitution, particularly those related to housing, health and education rights. In addition, Chile's nine indigenous groups, which make up almost 13 percent of the population – around two million people according to the 2017 census – are not recognized at all in the text or offer special protection, in contrast to all other countries in Latin America that have recognized indigenous groups in their constitutions.
The document also focuses political power largely on the executive branch and on Santiago, rather than transferring powers to the underdeveloped regions of Chile. For example, Antofagasta, the mining powerhouse of the north, provides much of all of Chilean capital but doesn't have much influence on how it is spent.
Proponents of change say the 1980 Constitution embodied the unfair and undignified system of dictatorship that marginalized the majority and concentrated wealth, power and influence in an isolated minority. "Although we often think that they refer only to political power, constitutions also determine the type of society that can band together around their rules," said Viviana Ponce de León, a constitutional scholar at the Australian University in Chile.
In contrast, proponents of the current constitution and its model argue that the document works well enough. They point out that the economy grew under this constitution, and claim that the upheavals caused by its replacement would slow rather than enable Chile's progress. (According to the World Bank, Chile's gross domestic product rose around 800% to $ 298 billion between 1990 and 2018. However, data from the United Nations Development Program also shows that the richest 1 percent of the country control a third of its wealth.) Many have has also adopted a mantra of rejecting major changes to prioritize reform, but the document cannot be easily revised. A three-fifths majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate is required to change most of the articles in the Constitution, and some major political and economic articles have even greater leeway.
Replacing the document entirely may be easier. Either a mixed assembly of 86 seated parliamentarians and 86 other delegates elected from civil society or a constituent assembly with all 155 members selected from the general population will be set up for this task to draft the new document. In order for a law to be included in the new constitution, it must be supported by at least two thirds from this body. Some have raised concerns that this clear approach could result in a sparse document, although there is no lack of ideas to discuss. Groups on both the left and right have drafted drafts that reflect their constitutional priorities over the past decade. Former President Michelle Bachelet even submitted a full draft in late 2018, which was drafted by officials. However, the referendum is the first opportunity for voters to get involved in promoting an entirely new project.
The process of creating the world's newest constitution is also promising for many. A March 24 agreement enshrined gender equality in the body that drafts it, should that body be a constitutional convention, which means that Chile has the opportunity to draft the first national constitution with guaranteed equal participation of women. Negotiations on how best to guarantee seating for tribal peoples are ongoing.
Whichever the group is formed, delegates would then have between nine and twelve months to draft an entirely new constitution, and a referendum would be held in mid-2022 with mandatory participation to ratify the finished product.
If the document is then rejected, the 1980 constitution will remain in place, putting Chile's activists back in first place, albeit with a draft constitution to refer to in the future. The editing process is also subject to uncertainties – parliamentarians can take advantage of an extension of the editorial deadline of six months. In response to the referendum vote this weekend, and during a possible constitutional process, the country could return to extended protests amid a renewed campaign for change.
Back in October, when protesters streamed down the wide avenues of Santiago to gather in Plaza Italia, some of the cardboard signs said: "Happiness never came, so we had to go out to find it." Garcia's answer? "It is a little unfair to see our campaign as responsible for the nation's political course." He went on with a smile: "My opinion is that happiness arrived because there was this explosion of joy – the slogan should not be taken as anything else.
"The country has changed a lot, there is no doubt about it, but there are still ropes that bind Chile to its past and many of them are constitutional." The referendum on Sunday will determine whether and how these ropes can be severed.