IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

Explained: Why Chileans have voted in favour of rewriting their constitution

30th October, 2020 International Relations

Context: After a wave of sustained protests, the people of Chile have voted overwhelmingly in favour of rewriting the South American country’s nearly four-decade-old constitution.

  • 78 per cent of people voted ‘yes’ in the referendum that was conducted following mass demonstrations against economic inequality across the country.
  • Chileans also voted to elect an assembly of 155 members to draw up the new constitution.
  • The body will not include any active lawmakers and will have a total of nine months, with the option of a one-time extension of three months, to finalise the new document.

Why did protests break out across the country?

  • Weeks of protests against economic inequality led up to Chilean President decision to hold the referendum in November last year.
  • Student-led protests, tensions and incidents of violence were reported, resulted in declaration of emergency and deployment of military troops.
  • The military presence reminded older citizens of the repressive rule between 1973 and 1990.
  • Apart from a new constitution, the protesters also called for reforms to the country’s privatised education, health and pension sectors — which they argued was the main reason behind the rampant economic inequality in the country.

Why are Chileans demanding constitutional reforms in the first place?

  • The existing charter was drafted during the rule of dictator and military leader Pinochet without any popular inputs.
  • The constitution was passed in a fraudulent plebiscite held in 1980, and has widely been blamed for the inequities that exist in Chilean society.
  • The constitution laid down an electoral system that has for years limited political change by favouring incumbents and limiting the power of the left in the country.
  • While an economic boom in the 1990s reduced poverty, it also vastly widened the gap between the rich and poor.
  • After 1988 referendum, the dictatorship-era constitution lived on.
  • Now, Chileans finally voted to scrap the constitution — a move that could potentially transform politics in the country, which has thus far been regarded as one of the most stable and wealthy Latin American nations.

How did the government respond to the protests?

  • Despite the widespread protests government took many weeks to agree to a referendum in 2019.
  • Eventually, the government agreed to constitutional reform before finally giving in to the demand for a fresh constitution.
  • In November, the ruling alliance and opposition together released a 12-point ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’, which laid down the steps for rewriting the constitution with greater participation by the citizens.

What did Chileans vote on?

  • During the referendum, voters were asked if they wanted a new constitution and also what kind of body should be responsible for drafting the revamped charter.
  • Around 79 per cent voted in support of the new constitution being drawn up by a body which will be entirely elected by popular vote.

What happens next?

  • The referendum was the first step of a long-drawn process.
  • The body will then have nine months to draft the constitution, with the option of a three-month extension.
  • The new constitution will then be introduced following another referendum in 2022.