Chileans elect gender-equal assembly to draft new constitution

·3-min read

The face of a new Chile begins taking shape this weekend as the South American country elects 155 people tasked with drafting a new constitution to replace the one imposed during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Nearly 80% of voters in a plebiscite last year chose to draft a new charter for the nation following a year of protests, though there is much less consistent agreement over what it should contain.

Activist groups have mobilized in hopes of enshrining equality for women, the right to abortion, and protections for the environment and for indigenous people.

Conservatives have also campaigned hard, hoping to maintain a dominant private sector and rules making it hard to pass major reforms in the legislature.

The assembly's ability to pass strong clauses may be limited, however. Two-thirds agreement is required, so any bloc that can muster a third of the votes in the constitutional convention can block any clause.

The governing centre-right coalition and other conservative parties are running a single slate in the two-day voting, while the left and centre-left are divided.

The document that emerges from the wrangling will go to a public vote in mid-2022. If rejected, the current constitution will remain in force.

'Deepen democracy'

The future makeup of the body reflects a wave of revulsion against the current political system that was obvious during unrest that spread across the nation in late 2019, with a grab-bag of protests against increased taxi fares, inadequate pensions and health care, poor schools and general inequality in one of Latin America's richest nations.

"Those protests were like an avalanche, the expression of a fury that built up over years at the neoliberal system," said Cumplido, a historian at Chile's National Library who describes herself as a feminist and says she wants greater citizen representation in politics.

"We need to deepen democracy, make it more agile, more in tune with what's happening today and that has really driven my conviction that we need a new constitution," Cumplido told Reuters.

Members of congress are barred from the convention and by law half of the body must consist of women – the first time any constitution has been drafted in conditions of gender parity, according to the United Nations.

“I don’t believe in the current politicians ... It’s the hour for us, for all who have been fighting for a most just country, to be part of the change,” said candidate Natalia Aravena, a 26-year-old nurse who lost an eye during the the recent wave of protests.

Indigenous rights

Seventeen seats are reserved for indigenous peoples, who are not mentioned in the existing constitution.

The left, especially, has long detested Chile's current constitution, which was written and imposed under the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of Pinochet.

That document, which created a strong presidency and guarantees protections for private property, has guided the nation through a period of overall prosperity but also of intense inequality.

It also gives broad powers to security forces, highlighted by a brutal crackdown on recent protests.

The old constitution was amended over the years, notably with the 2005 repeal of an article that had allowed appointed senators and senators for life in Congress.

The vote originally was scheduled for April, but was delayed by an upsurge of Covid-19 cases. Overall, Chile has been among the countries most successful at vaccinating its population, with nearly 60% of Chileans getting at least one dose, though most of the country's districts remain under some sort of pandemic restrictions.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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