Chile president signs off on constitutional change referendum

A demonstrator in front of the presidential palace during a protest against Chilean President Sebastian Pinera's government on December 20, 2019

Chile President Sebastian Pinera enacted a law on Monday that will allow the South American country to hold a referendum on April 26 to change its military dictatorship era constitution.

Changing the constitution enacted under former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973-90, was one of the main demands made of Pinera as he bids to end two months of protests against his government and inequality.

"This reform opens the doors and defines a path to achieve a great constitutional agreement," said Pinera in signing into law a bill approved last week by Congress.

Many Chileans believe the constitution to be a source of many inequalities affecting them.

They will be asked two questions on April 26: do they want a new constitution and who should draft it.

The second question refers to whether or not those tasked with the redrafting should be specifically elected by the public to do so, for example in the formation of a new constitution assembly.

The government favors a committee made up half of existing lawmakers and half by a new group elected directly by the public to draft the constitution, while the opposition prefers a committee made up entirely of specifically elected members.

The decision to hold a referendum to change the constitution was reached following an agreement last month between the government and left-wing opposition parties and came just two days after particularly violent protests.

Pinera signed the enactment at the presidential palace in the company of socialist former president Ricardo Lagos, who 15 years ago introduced a number of significant constitutional reforms.

Should Chileans vote to redraft the constitution, a new poll to elect those responsible for the task in hand would be held in October 2020, during regional and municipal elections.

The constitutional body would then have nine months to come up with a new text, a deadline which could be extended by a further three months.

"This referendum, the first in 30 years, should serve us in leaving behind the violence and divisions that we've painfully and sadly seen resurging these last few days," said Pinera.

One of the protesters main demands is that Pinera resign.

Pinera was initially opposed to constitutional reform when he was elected to replace socialist Michelle Bachelet last year.

The constitution has been changed numerous times since it was enacted in 1980.