Uncertainty and Hope Mark the Upcoming Chilean Plebiscite

A cyclist heads a line that waits to obtain a free copy of the proposed text of the new Constitution, in an office on Villavicencio Street, in Santiago de Chile, where in one week 20,000 copies were distributed, with the only requirement being provide your age and gender. Photo: Orlando Milesi/IPS

By Orlando Milesi (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – One month before the plebiscite to accept or reject a new Constitution, Chile has been plunged into a climate of uncertainty and hope. The text of the proposed new Magna Carta, which marks a totally new direction for the country, was drafted over the last year by a Constitutional Convention with 154 delegates elected by popular and democratic vote.

This unprecedented Constitutional Convention was made up of an equal balance of men and women and included the country’s indigenous peoples. The majority of its delegates were independent voices who were not committed to any political parties.

The Convention officially turned in its proposal on July 4th, with contents approved by at least 2/3 of the Convention. The Chilean people must now vote to Approve or Reject it, in a September 4th plebiscite where voting is mandatory for the first time since 2012. It’s expected that 15 of the 19.5 million Chileans will vote to express their approval or rejection of the document.

The official campaign for the plebiscite opened on Thursday, August 4th. At that time, mainstream television, for example, will open a 30-minute daily slot for arguing the reasons to reject or approve, with equal time for each side.

The Constitutional proposal forges new roads. It embraces social rights; it incorporates the indigenous peoples; it guarantees rights to women and sexual minorities; and it codifies respect for nature. However, it also threatens the interests of those who currently control the water, the mining reserves, lands in Chile’s Arauco province, and the existing social welfare institutions.

For that reason, it has provoked friction and polarized the country. The results of the vote will determine the future of Chile and its current leftist president, Gabriel Boric.

Diamela Eltit, Chilean writer and university professor, recipient of the 2010 “Jose Donoso” Ibero-American Prize, believes that this Constitutional initiative tackles issues that mark and will mark the course of the twenty-first century in this South American country.

“It’s a comprehensive proposal. The text reflects the long-running traditional social struggles for the right to health, housing, work, and education, but also the urgency of preserving the environment and the care of animals,” she told IPS.

“In terms of identity, it proposes the parity of men and women, the recognition of diverse identities, and in a particular manner our multi-nationalism, highlighting the cultures of the indigenous peoples. This text modifies political structures. In the economic arena, it puts limits on the savage globalism currently in effect here,” she analyzed.

An edition of the constitutional proposal printed on better paper than the free editions, is sold for about $4.4 dollars in kiosks and streets of Santiago and other cities in Chile. Photo: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Eltit thinks the proposal will be approved, but she warns that the approval will “generate tensions”. “Force fields will be unleashed, because the elites will resist its implementation. However, it will mean we’ve traced a definitive, fixed path towards piercing the inequalities that have so damaged millions of lives.”

In contrast to her views, former Convention delegate Cristian Monckeberg, ex-president of the National Renewal Party, a confluence of right-leaning forces, harshly criticized the Constitutional proposal.

“Today, we have a country that’s divided around a proposal that should have been a unifying factor instead,” she declared to IPS.

In her view: “Whatever happens, it’s generated a divided country, with complex consequences that are going to require great political finesse to administer and resolve.”

“Whether the Reject or Approve wins, we need a President of the country that’s respected by all. And President Boric is committing an enormous mistake by transforming himself into a campaign head [for the Approve vote]. That’s going to greatly complicate his role as head of state, so that on September 5th, the day after the plebiscite, he can seek some kind of solution,” Monckeberg asserted.

Gabriel Boric, who assumed the presidency in March, supports the approval vote, but has reiterated that both options of the plebiscite are legitimate. He defends his active role, arguing that it’s his duty to inform citizens so that they vote knowledgeably.

According to Monckeberg, “great skill and agility will be needed to construct scenarios for implementation if the Approve vote triumphs, because I don’t believe that anything will be modified if this option wins. If the Reject vote wins, it will be more possible to construct a Constitution that’s a little more unifying, more agreed-upon.”

Helen, a 34-year-old Chilean citizen, poses in front of La Moneda Palace, seat of the Chilean government, displaying a copy of the proposed new constitution that will be voted on in the September 4 plebiscite. She, an unemployed woman who cannot find a qualified job that exceeds the minimum wage, will vote “I approve” of the project. Photo: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Promoting an informed decision

The expectations are enormous. Thousands line up to receive a free copy of the proposed Constitution, which they can then use to debate with colleagues and others close to them.

Nutritionist Estefania Pizarro, 36, picked up her copy at an office of the Department of Social Organizations in Villavicencio, right in the center of Santiago. That office distributed 20,000 copies in seven days. It’s expected that some 900,000 copies will be distributed up and down the lengthy Chilean territory before the plebiscite is held.

“You need to make a more informed decision, because it’s irresponsible to remain unaware. The vacuum fosters the propagation of false information,” Pizarro commented to IPS.

Social leader Andres Orellana, 47, is a member of the Monterrey Cultural Group in Conchali, on the northern edge of Santiago. He took 30 copies. “We’re going to debate this on Sunday, Constitution in hand,” he stated.

Deputy Guillermo Ramírez, of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union, distributes publicity to cars for the rejection of the proposed new Constitution, on a corner of Bilbao Avenue, in the wealthy municipality of Las Condes, in the east of Santiago de Chile. On the sidewalk, a dozen young people wave flags for rejection. Photo: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Inequality permeates everything

This Constitution comes in a country of enormous inequality.

Economist Damian Vergara, a doctoral candidate at the University of Berkeley in California, headed a research project that will serve as input towards the tax reforms that Boric is pushing. Using data from Chile’s Internal Tax Service, his team corroborated the inequality in the country. Vergara spoke of this during an online gathering in which IPS participated.

After analyzing 99% of the taxpayers, the study established that 0.01% of them – equivalent to some 1,300 Chileans – declared earnings of a billion pesos (1.11 million dollars) a month. The minimum monthly salary in Chile, on the other hand, is equal to US $444 dollars a month.

If the Approve vote wins, a few provisions will enter into immediate effect: the chapters referring to basic principles; the norms for transitioning to the new Constitution; the make-up of legislative quorums; the organization of Congress; and election of regional authorities. However, the norms regulating the functioning of the government will have to wait for Congress to pass the needed enabling laws.

That transition will entail some 60 new laws. Passing these would take at least three years, and would require congressional agreement, in a legislature that today is split between the government and the opposition.

If the refuse option wins, the 1980 Constitution – drafted by experts appointed by the military dictatorship (1973-1990) of Augusto Pinochet – will remain in force.  

The poet Raul Zurita along with dozens of other self-convened artists for the approval of the proposed new Constitution, participate during a day of mobilization at a headquarters of the Academy of Christian Humanism University in the municipality of Providencia, in Santiago de Chile. Photo: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Majority support modifying the text

The debate today centers on the provisions that could be modified to improve the Constitutional proposal. That’s because surveys indicate that nearly 70% of Chileans favor either the option of “Reject in order to reform”, or “Approve, then improve”.

Carolina Toha, Presidential Minister under socialist president Michelle Bachelet (2006 – 2010 and 2014-2018), supports the Approve option, but feels there’s still time to reach greater consensus. She proposes a political accord and anticipates some changes that will be made if the Constitution is approved.

“There are grassroots and political grounds for making reforms. The type of adjustments required have majority support in the current Congress,” she affirmed.

Toha added: “Those of us proposing reforms to improve the document after approval are promising something we can fulfill. In contrast, those who propose a Reject vote, in order to reform it, are trusting the right wing to undergo some kind of transformation, and now support things they’ve never wanted.”

According to Toha, the greatest gain from the proposed Constitutional document, “is that it creates a foundation for our cohabitation in society based on a distribution of power centered around the concept of general equality. The other great takeaway is that this proposal was made with the angry people at the table.”

Claudia Heiss, professor at the University of Chile’s Institute for Public Affairs, told IPS that if the approval vote wins, “we’ll be on the path towards solving the problems that triggered the social explosion” of October 2019. That explosion brought mass mobilizations and incidents that shook up the second term of right-wing President Sebastian Pinera (2018 – 2022).

According to Heiss, if the Reject vote wins, the most probable thing is that there’ll also be some reforms, because the national plebiscite held on October 25, 2020 – which paved the way for the Constitutional change process – ended with a conclusive 78% vote to bury Pinochet’s Constitution and draft a new foundational document.

“But [if the Reject vote wins] the nature of those reforms would be subject to the veto of the right, which has been the obstacle to reforming the 1980 Constitution,” she warned.

Many are reading the Constitutional proposal, in an unprecedented event of political learning. However, it’s a complex text. Because of that, the social networks are become a source of information whose impact, according to the experts, goes beyond that of the traditional media. Social media is also where the greatest lies about the proposal are concentrated.

Heiss believes: “The impact of fake news has been fairly great. It’s a dirty campaign, with a lot of resources that without a doubt has permeated the population, especially those who are less educated and more susceptible to being fooled.”

The academic indicated, “there are studies that show how susceptible the Chilean citizens are today to fake news. Many receive their information from social media, with no editorial control. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TicToc and WhatsApp have become tools of political information.”

There’s no doubt that the Reject supporters have invested a lot of money in a disinformation campaign, and that will have an effect,” she added.

The television slot that opened on August 4th devotes 30 minutes a day to the issue, split evenly between the Reject and the Approve campaigns. However, it faces the problem that public television today has less audience and less impact on Chilean society.

Different surveys continue to show the Reject side winning, with up to 10 points of difference. However, the upcoming month of campaigning makes the result of a vote based on contents and not on candidates unforeseeable.

Writer Raul Zurita, 72, winner of the 2020 Queen Sofia prize for Ibero-American poetry, believes the Approve vote will win. He wants “September 5 to be a big party, and a hugely joyful occasion, because at last the dictatorship has ended with a new Constitution.”

“Another, healthier, Chile will open, another future for the youngest,” he predicted.

“We have already borne the weight of our dead, our missing, our shot down. For them, and thanks to them, we’re also here. But those who will carry all this forward will be the youth,” he concluded.

This news item first appeared in Spanish at:  https://ipsnoticias.net/2022/08/incertidumbre-y-expectativas-ante-plesbiscito-constitucional-chileno/

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