SANTIAGO – President Sebastian Piñera on Friday set a date of April 26, 2020, for a referendum on whether Chile should draft a new constitution to replace the one imposed in 1980 by dictator Augusto Pinochet.
“It is not just any election, because with this democratic and republican action we will to choose between two alternatives, both of them equally legitimate and democratic,” he said while signing the decree during a ceremony at La Moneda palace.
Voters will be asked to decide between convening a constitutional convention to craft a new national charter and making further reforms to the existing document.
Piñera’s right-wing government agreed to hold the referendum in a bid to tamp down the popular uprising that erupted in mid-October.
The proximate cause for Chile’s largest protests since the end of the 1973-1990 Pinochet dictatorship was an increase in transit fares in Santiago, but the grievances quickly expanded to include low pay and pensions, student debt and poor health care, among other issues.
The movement, which brought 1.2 million people – more than 5 percent of Chile’s population – into the center of Santiago on Oct. 25, has made adoption of a new constitution one of its signature demands.
At least 24 people have died during the course of the protests, many of them at the hands of the security forces, and hundreds more have been injured.
Critics see the 1980 charter as the root cause of Chile’s gaping inequality because it gives the state only a “subsidiary” role in the provision of basic services, effectively encouraging the privatization of healthcare, education and the pension system.
And while the constitution has been amended more than 40 times in recent years, its essence remains changed due to the sizable majorities needed in Congress for a major overhaul. Former President Michelle Bachelet unsuccessfully pushed for a constituent process during her second term in office from 2014 to 2018.
If Chileans opt to draft a new constitution, they will then have to decide on how to assemble a constitutional convention.
One plan calls for a mixed assembly comprising members of Congress and ordinary citizens, while the other mandates elections to choose delegates for the sole purpose of drafting a new constitution.
In either case, the provisional calendar envisions the creation of a new charter by the end of 2020, to be followed by another referendum on the draft document.