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  • Opinion by Ines M Pousadela (Montevideo, Uruguay)
  • Interpress service

This is the second attempt to amend the constitution in two years. The first process was the most open and inclusive in Chile’s history. The resulting constitutional text, ambitious and progressive, was widely rejected in a referendum. It is now far from certain that this latest, much less inclusive process will result in a new constitution being accepted and adopted – and there is a possibility that a new constitution could be worse than the one it replaces.

A long and winding road

Chile’s constitutional process was born mass protests which erupted in October 2019, under the neoliberal administration of Sebastián Piñera. The protests only subsided when the leaders of major parties agreed to hold a referendum to ask people if they wanted a new constitution and, if so, how it should be drafted.

In the vote in October 2020, nearly 80 percent of voters supported constitutional change, with a new constitution to be drawn up by a directly elected constitutional assembly. In May 2021, the Constituent Assembly was elected, with an innovative mechanism to ensure gender equality and reserved seats for indigenous peoples. Middle of big expectationsthe diverse and diverse body began a year-long journey towards a new constitution.

Driven by the same winds of change, in December 2021 Chile selected its youngest and most unconventional president ever: former student protester Gabriel Boric. But that soon turned sideways, and support for the Constituent Assembly – often criticized for being made up of unqualified amateurs – steadily declined along with support for the new government.

In September 2022, a referendum resulted in an overwhelming majority rejection of the constitutional proposal. Although highly progressive in its focus on gender and indigenous rights, a common criticism was that the proposed constitution could do little to promote basic social rights in a country characterized by high economic inequality and poor public services. Misinformation was also rife during the campaign.

The second attempt started in January 2023, when Congress passed a law establishing a new process with a much more traditional format. Instead of the large number of independent representatives previously involved, this returned control to political parties. The time frame was shortened, the composition was made smaller and the previously blank slate was replaced by a set of agreed principles. The task of producing the first draft is in the hands of an expert commission, with a technical body, the Technical Admissibility Committee, overseeing compliance with a a set of agreed principles. One of the few things left over from the previous process was gender equality.

Starting in March, the expert commission was given three months to come up with a new draft, to be presented to the Constitutional Council for debate and approval. A referendum will be held in December to either ratify or reject the new constitution.

Success for the extreme right

Compared to the election to the constitutional convention in 2021, the election to the constitutional council was characterized by low public engagement. A investigation published in mid-April found that 48 percent of respondents had little or no interest in the election and 62 percent had little or no confidence in the constitutional process. Polls also showed increasing dissatisfaction with the government: by the end of 2022, the approval rating had fallen to 27 percent. This made a protest against the government likely.

While the 2021 campaign focused on inequality, the focus this time was on rising crime, economic hardship and irregular migration, with a focus on security issues. The party that most strongly reflected and instrumentalized these concerns emerged as the winner.

The far-right Republican Party, led by defeated presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, received 35.4 percent of the vote and won 23 seats in the 50-member council. The government-backed Unity for Chile came second, with 28.6 percent and 16 seats. The traditional right-wing alliance Safe Chile won 21 percent of the vote and won 11 seats. No seats were won by the populist People’s Party and the centrist All for Chile alliance, led by the Christian Democratic Party. The political center has disappeared, with polarization on the rise.

What you can expect

The expert commission will present its draft proposal on June 6 and the Constitutional Council will then have five months to work on it, approving decisions with the votes of three-fifths of its members – meaning 31 votes will be needed for to make decisions, and 21 votes. will be enough to block them. This gives the Republican Party veto power – and if it succeeds in working with the traditional right, they will be able to define the content of the new constitution.

The chances that the new constitutional proposal will be better than the old one are small. At best, only cosmetic changes will be introduced. In the worst case, it will be an even more regressive text.

People will have the final say on December 17th. If they ratify the proposed text, Chile will adopt a constitution that, at best, does not differ much from the existing one. If they reject it, Chileans will be stuck with the old constitution that many rose up against in 2019. Regardless, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the recognition of rights will have been lost, and it will be up to civil society to keep pushing for the recognition and protection of human rights.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS lens and co-author of Report on the state of civil society.

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service