Chile begins writing new constitution that business interests fear will chart a leftist course

Jul 5, 2021 | 6 comments

Chile officially started writing a new constitution on Sunday in Santiago to replace the one it inherited from the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet and is widely blamed for deep social inequalities that gave rise to deadly protests in 2019.

Indigenous academic and activist Elisa Loncon, holding an idigenous flag, was elected president of Chile’s Constitutional Convention.

In its first official action, the constitutional convention picked indigenous Mapuche activist and university professor Elisa Loncon to lead the process, sparking conerns among Chile’s conservative and business community that the new document will embody leftist ideals.

The country’s biggest protests in 30 years of democracy won Chileans a referendum last October in which a majority voted for a new constitution to be drawn up by a body of elected members. Observers say that a majority of the155-member convention are center-leftists and leftsits.

The convention represents a wide range of Chileans — lawyers, teachers, a housewife, scientists, social workers, vets, writers, journalists, actors and doctors — many of whom had themselves partaken in the protests. The youngest is 21. Half are women, by design, and 17 seats were reserved for representatives of indigenous groups.

The assembly holds the power to draft a new path for the country after decades of political and economic power concentrated in the hands of an elite, many from the right and defenders of the old constitution’s free-market guarantees.

“They come from the same schools, they go to the same three universities and most of them have lived in Santiago, in the most affluent neighborhoods,” Marcela Rios, assistant representative of the United Nations Development Program in Chile, said of the old guard.

The new constitution-drafters, in contrast, come from a diverse array of backgrounds, mainly with leftist leanings, and many gained their support base from years of social work in their communities. “Diversity is a good thing but it also presents challenges that will require concessions” for any agreement to be reached, said constitutional law expert Javier Couso from the University Diego Portales.

Independent candidates swept the May elections, taking 46 percent of the seats as voters turned their backs on traditional political parties. Center-left parties, who broadly canvassed on greater state control of natural resources and more social spending, received a third of the votes cast.

The right garnered just over 20 percent, meaning it will have no veto on the body that requires a two-thirds majority to approve the draft constitution. The new document, in the end, will be put to a national referendum next year, in which voting will be mandatory.

Chile’s existing constitution dates from 1980, enacted at the height of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 rule. It promotes private enterprise in all sectors of the economy — including education, health and pensions — in a country ranked as one of the most unequal among advanced economies. Chile has the highest per capita income and the third-most multimillionaires in Latin America.

But the working and even upper-middle classes are heavily indebted, often to pay for schooling and private pensions. There is low satisfaction with the quality of life, according too polls.

Constitutional convention member Rodrigo Rojas Vade said he would seek to address the concerns of the Chilean “who is tired of receiving orders, who does not make it to the end of the month, who dies in hospital without care, the child who goes to bed with the pain of hunger every night.” His group, the People’s List, supports water as a basic right, public health, free education, decent pensions and fortified human rights guarantees.

“To this day we live in a society that is restricted in the exercise of rights and freedoms because we still have a constitution inherited from this fratricidal period we lived through,” said Manuel Woldarsky, another People’s List representative.

Credit: France24