SANTIAGO – Four days before the historic plebiscite to decide on whether a new constitution is needed in Chile, the government reiterated on Wednesday its call against violence, given the possibility of disturbances on voting day and announced that on that day metro transport in the capital of Santiago will be free.
“A violent minority who wants to destroy the country will not alter the decision of Chileans to take the path of democratic processes, which is where differences may be resolved,” Interior Minister Victor Perez said.
For the day of the referendum, Oct. 25, more than 25,000 members of the armed forces will be deployed all across the country, according to official sources, to deal with any potential attempts to disrupt the voting with demonstrations or other incidents.
The vote, whereby the public will be able to express their opinion as to whether Chile requires a new national charter, was set up to try and mitigate the current crisis prevailing in the South American country, where demonstrations, disturbances and episodes of violence have been going on for more than a year, leaving at least 30 people dead.
Last Sunday, Oct. 18, the date of the first anniversary of the so-called “social explosion” that marked the start of the riots and protests in 2019, assorted violent incidents were perpetrated such as the burning of churches, looting and rioting that tainted the huge peaceful march in which tens of thousands of people participated during the day.
“All expressions fomenting hatred are contrary to what we’re advocating, above all on the eve of such an important plebiscite,” government spokesman Jaime Bellolio said.
The vote, in which more than 14.5 million citizens are eligible to take part, is considered to be the most important in three decades of democracy since it opens up the possibility for jettisoning the current constitution, which was inherited from the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, a document considered by many to be the origin of the country’s inequalities because of its neoliberal character.
In the upcoming referendum, voters will also have to select the type of entity that, within a maximum of one year, will draft the prospective new constitution, selecting either an assembly composed solely of elected citizens or a mixed body in which lawmakers also participate.
The unexpected announcement making metro trips free in the Chilean capital on voting day was the main issue of the day on which the details of the vote were being finalized. The balloting had originally been scheduled for last April but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve been working and there’s going to be an extraordinary budget allocation so that on Sunday we can have free metro service,” Bellolio said.
The proposal, implemented because of the precarious economic situation of many families amid the crisis caused by the pandemic, sparked discussion between the government – which initially had rejected the option due to a “lack of time” – and the opposition, which said that making metro fares gratis was “fundamental” to ensure that people go to the polls.
“It’s very positive that on an historic day all measures possible are being undertaken so that people can safely get to the voting sites,” said opposition lawmaker Carolina Marzan.
The measures will be implemented for the metro, which exists only in Santiago, and on the trains in the regions surrounding Valparaiso (some 100 kilometers – or 62 miles) from the capital and Concepcion (500 km or 310 miles away), but free public transportation will not be authorized in rural areas, and that has concerned the opposition.
“We had asked for complete free transportation to have a full participation plebiscite. People cannot (be allowed to) fail to vote because they don’t have the money for the bus,” said Social Democrat Heraldo Muñoz.
The discussion and disagreement highlighted the polarization of the political forces in the run-up to the vote, with the left lobbying for a new constitution and the right giving its candidates free rein to say what they want but with certain sectors emphasizing that the current charter should remain in effect.
The vote comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still in full swing in Chile, leading authorities to put together a plan with special health protocols to prevent the spread of the virus and establish a special voting schedule for the elderly, who are most vulnerable to the disease, which is often deadly to that group and other cohorts with comorbidities.
Other measures announced so far this week include the reduction of the curfew hours, a curfew that has been in place since the pandemic hit Chile in March.