Chileans choose assembly to draft a new constitution

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The face of a new Chile began taking shape this weekend as the South American country was electing 155 people to draft a constitution to replace one that has governed it since being imposed during a military dictatorship.

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, protections for the environment, for Indigenous people, for or against the right to abortion. Conservatives hope to maintain a dominant private sector and rules making it hard to pass major reforms in the legislature.

Their ability to get any strong clauses may be limited, though: 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 center-right coalition and other conservative parties are running a single slate in the two-day voting, while the left and center-left are divided among several tickets.

“This is one of the most important elections in our history,” said President Sebastián Piñera as he cast a vote Saturday.

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.

The 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.

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.

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 Gen. Augusto 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 that civil libertarians see as excessive.

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.

The election will also decide mayoral and gubernatorial posts across the country.

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