SANTIAGO – Supporters of replacing Chile’s constitution, inherited from the dictatorship, waved national flags on Thursday and shouted “Yes, we can” in front of the presidential headquarters, while supporters of maintaining the current charter held a vehicle convoy in the east of the capital.
Chile thus put an end to a two-month referendum campaign marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic ravages derived from lockdowns and an unparalleled social crisis since the country’s return to democracy, which have resulted in massive demonstrations and have left 30 dead and thousands injured.
The referendum to be held on Sunday was agreed to last November by almost all the parties as a way out of the social unrest and was supposed to be held in April.
It was postponed due to the pandemic, which reached its peak in June, leaving almost half a million infected and about 13,800 dead.
The “Approve” camp sees the current constitution as “illegitimate” due to its dictatorial origin, although it was reformed dozens of times during democratic period, in addition to being the cause of inequality in the country for promoting the privatization of basic services.
“Thanks to the young people, we have a plebiscite. They not only jumped the subway turnstiles, but they also said ‘enough,’” retired Magdalena Alvarez told EFE, referring to the first protests of the students against the increase in suburban transport fares a year ago, which later led to riots.
“Hopefully education is accessible to the people and there is a real investment from the State,” Professor Claudia Martinez added.
Those opposing the new constitution, however, believe that Chile’s problems should be solved with new laws, not by changing the constitution.
They also argue that the last thing the country needs at this time is a “blank page” that generates “uncertainty” and “discourages investment.”
“We want reforms, but within the institutional framework, without starting from scratch,” a young Gonzalo Mendez told EFE.
“The time of greatest growth in Chile has been with this constitution,” added Sebastian Kaiser, another protester, from a car.
The leftist government opposition is a bloc in favor of constitutional change, while the four right-wing parties that make up the ruling coalition are divided, with the ultra-conservative Independent Democratic Union being the biggest supporter of “Reject.”
“The right wing seeks to create fear, uneasiness, but the people will vote without fear because they know that we are risking the future of our country,” said former foreign minister and president of the social democratic Party for Democracy, Heraldo Muñoz.
“We want to give a blow of energy to all those people, to that silent majority who will vote for the ‘Reject,’ and tell them to go to the polls because we will have a great surprise,” said the National Renewal party’s Tomas Fuentes.
The Chilean president, the conservative Sebastian Piñera, asked his ministers not to campaign in favor of any option to prevent it from becoming a referendum on his administration, but some ignored the request.
The polls point to “Approve” as the winner, although both parties are more even in another question that the plebiscite raises: should the final new charter be drawn up by a body made up only of citizens elected for that purpose or also made up of parliamentarians?
The only opposition group that did not attend the flagging in front of the presidential palace was the Communist Party, which called another rally at noon at Plaza Italia, the roundabout in downtown Santiago that has become the epicenter of the protests.
“In these decisive hours we pay tribute to people whose human rights have been violated by the government, with the confidence that a new stage will be open for us to build a more dignified Chile,” declared the party’s president, Guillermo Teillier, alluding to almost 4,600 cases opened against the police force for alleged abuses during the protests.
The great challenge of the plebiscite is the voter turnout, which may be down due to the fear of COVID-19 contagion and the high abstention rate in Chile. No election in the country has exceeded 50 percent participation since voting ceased to be mandatory in 2012.