SANTIAGO – Fifteen political parties agreed on Thursday that in view of the coronavirus crisis, a referendum on whether Chile should draft a new constitution will be postponed from April 26 to Oct. 25.
“I appreciate this effort. It’s difficult in politics to reach accords about an issue as complex as redefining the electoral calendar,” Senate leader Adriana Muñoz said.
The rare instance of consensus comes after the Chilean government declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the number of confirmed cases climbed by 103 in 24 hours to 342.
While authorities have not ordered people to remain at home, shopping malls and stores selling non-essential goods are shuttered and classes at schools and universities have been suspended since Monday.
“It represents a much broader accord than that of last November (when all of the major parties except the Communists agreed to hold the referendum),” Muñoz said after more than three hours of talks.
Besides delaying the plebiscite, the pact calls for municipal elections now set for Oct. 25 to be delayed until April 4, 2021, which would also be the date for electing delegates to a hypothetical constitutional convention.
In the referendum, voters will be asked to decide whether Chile needs a new constitution and, if the answer is “yes,” should the document be drafted by Congress or by a constituent assembly elected solely for that purpose.
Holding the plebiscite was the centerpiece of the political class’ effort to defuse the unrest that began in October with protests against an increase in subway fares in Santiago and quickly grew into a national uprising over the extreme economic inequality prevailing in Chile.
More than 30 people have died in the course of protests, many at the hands of the police, who have been denounced by domestic and international organizations for torturing, sexually assaulting and maiming demonstrators.
All the polls indicate that Chileans will vote overwhelmingly in favor of getting rid of the current constitution, which was enacted in 1980 during the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
“The postponement of the election calendar has the goal of making room for us to concentrate on the important thing: fighting the coronavirus,” Fuad Chahin, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats, said on Twitter.
Thursday’s agreement allows Chile “to take charge of the health crisis we are experiencing, but at the same time to protect the plebiscite and the constituent process that has been opened thanks to the massive social mobilization,” said Javiera Toro, of the leftist Broad Front coalition.
“We are very happy,” said Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, chair of the far-right UDI, one of the four parties in the current governing coalition.