SANTIAGO – An agreement reached between Chilean government officials and the opposition to hold a referendum on a new constitution aims to bring an end to weeks of unrest and opens up a path to bring about a new social model in the country.
Chilean voters will decide in April 2020 whether they want to replace the current constitution, which was approved in 1980 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).
This constitution granted the state a subsidiary role in the provision of basic resources such as health, education and pensions, which were largely privatized and have been at the heart of social protests the country has witnessed since 18 October. The unrest has left at least 22 dead.
With the agreement, the government and the political class hope to ease the upheaval, which has involved massive daily demonstrations, violent rioting, vandalism and looting.
Hundreds of people have come forward to accuse Chile’s security forces of human rights violations and the economy is in danger of entering a recession in 2020 due to a slump in productivity and trade.
“This deal is the first step, but it is a historic first step and fundamental to begin constructing our new social pact,” Gonzalo Blumel, Chile’s interior minister, said.
“We are sure that it will allow us to reconnect and build a better country, a more just country, more inclusive and, most importantly, a more united country.”
Not only will voters get the chance to decide whether to replace the Constitution, but they will also decide who is tasked with re-writing a new text: a constituent assembly shared evenly by lawmakers and civil society representatives comprising 50 percent lawmakers or an assembly made up entirely by spokespeople specifically elected for the job.
Any new constitution will be built from scratch and not based on the Pinochet-era document.
The election of the constituent assembly is set to take place in October should the electorate opt for that route in April.
Once a new document has been drafted, it will be re-submitted to the public for ratification.
“We want to put ourselves at the forefront of a true social contract with a 100 percent democratic Constitution,” Jaime Quintana, President of the Senate, told reporters.
The deal was revealed at 2.24 am local time following two long days of talks between official and opposition forces, except for the Communist Party and the Social Green Regionalist Federation, which did not want to take part.
President Sebastian Piñera has been slowly opening up to the idea of adjusting the Constitution.
On Sunday, Blumel said the executive was willing to draft a new document in Congress before submitting it to a referendum.
Piñera on Tuesday made a renewed call for peace in the streets of Chile following a particularly violent day of protest.
Yet the government’s proposal to first draft the text in Congress was at odds with the route preferred by the opposition and civil activists group, who instead wanted to create a special assembly for the task.
Maria Cristina Escudero, an academic at the University of Chile’s Institute of Public Affairs, told Efe that the deal was “historic.”
“The people had demanded the constitutional process for a long time but there was no consensus on the mechanism.
“It’s not the final solution, but it is the right path.”
The unrest in Chile began in October with protesters amassing on streets to demand greater social reforms, including free education, better health care, higher wages and pensions, and convening a constituent assembly to draft a new Constitution.
Street demonstrations reached unprecedented levels on 26 October when around 1.2 million people gathered for a historic march in the country’s capital to demand the resignation of President Piñera and denounce his right-wing government’s austerity policies.
The “Agreement on Peace and New Constitution” between the government and the opposition, addresses the “grave social and political crisis” the country is going through with the “mobilization of the people,” the document said.