Chile votes on the new conservative Constitution in a referendum

In 2019, a police officer fired rubber bullets at a psychology student named Gustavo Gatica, just one of thousands of protesters demonstrating across Chile against the nation’s government and deep inequality. Mr. Gatica lost one eye and was blind in the other.

Mr. Gatica considered it a devastating sacrifice, but not in vain. The protests forced a process to abolish the Chilean Constitution, which still had its roots in the bloody 17-year military dictatorship, and to write a national charter from scratch. Mr. Gatica has become part of a national campaign for a new path of hope for this South American nation of 19 million people.

Now, four years later, after a series of painful political battles and votes in constitutional assemblies and on drafts, Gatica finds itself in a disorienting position. On Sunday he plans to vote to keep the dictatorship-era Constitution for which he has lost vision while fighting to replace it.

The reason? The paper proposal that Chileans are deciding on would actually push the nation further to the right.

“Unexpectedly, they managed to write an even worse constitution,” said Gatica, 26, sitting in the psychology office he opened in Santiago, Chile’s capital, a few blocks from where he was blinded. “In 2019 I never thought we would get to this point.”

Chile’s vote is the culmination of a four-year effort to adopt a new constitution that at one point was hailed as a democratic governance model around the world – and now it’s an example of how messy democracy really is.

There were huge protests, initially prompted by the 4-cent increase in subway fares, which left parts of Santiago destroyed, more than 30 civilians killed, and 460 protesters suffering severe eye injuries.

There was a national referendum – with 78% of votes in favor – to replace the current Constitution, a heavily amended version of a 1980 document first enacted by the military government of General Augusto Pinochet.

There was then a constitutional assembly made up of political outsiders, mostly from the left and far left, who drafted a text of 388 articles that would have enshrined more than 100 rights, more than any other national charter ever seen in history, including the right to housing. , education, Internet access, clean air, sanitation and care “from birth to death”.

Last year in a national plebiscite there was an overwhelming rejection of that text.

And finally, this year, the election of a new constitutional assembly, now largely led by a far-right party, which drafted an entirely new charter that critics said would tighten the economic conditions against which protesters they had fought and that started the whole process. .

“It was our turbulent way of coming to terms with the unfinished work of the transition to democracy,” said Felipe Agüero, a political scientist at the University of Chile who has studied the country’s evolution since the end of the dictatorship of Pinochet in 1990.

Both the left and the right, when given the chance to finally write a new charter, avoided commitment and instead wrote texts almost completely based on their own worldview, he said. “It is a consequence of the fact that we have postponed a significant change to the Constitution for so long,” Agüero said.

Last year, Chileans came out en masse to support or fight against the proposed charter at a moment that seemed crucial for the country.

Days before the vote, hundreds of thousands of people supporting the left-wing text flooded downtown Santiago, in light of tense protests years earlier, for a concert to cap the campaign of what they hoped would be the start of a new, fairer nation.

Then 62% of Chileans rejected the proposal. The left deflated and much of the public remained disillusioned and disengaged.

Months later, right-wing candidates won two-thirds of the 51 seats in the new constitutional council. Many were members of Chile’s emerging far-right Republican Party, which generally opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and speaks nostalgically of the Pinochet years.

As part of this year’s second constitutional trial, Congress appointed a panel of 24 experts, most of them lawyers, who drafted a model text presenting a common ground approach.

“I felt we could all live with it,” Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile’s center-left, said in an interview. Instead, the right-dominated council significantly expanded the template to create a more conservative text. “The temptation for them was too great,” she said.

“You can’t win it all or earn it all,” Ms. Bachelet added. “That’s what happened with the first attempt, and that’s what’s happening now.”

Luis Silva, a Republican Party board member who has established himself as a spokesperson of sorts, said the process was actually balanced because both the left and the right agreed on the parameters, there was an equal number of women and men involved and the model text of the bipartisan group of experts strongly influenced the final proposal.

“I am convinced that the proposal represents a balance between the views of the left and the right on all constitutional issues,” he said in a televised debate this month.

The 216-article text establishes a wide range of rules and principles – the US Constitution has seven articles, by comparison – but it is unclear how they would be transposed into law.

THE text supports a pro-market approach to governance, ensuring the private sector has a leading role in sectors such as education and healthcare. It appears to lock Chile into a private social security system that has been widely criticized for providing better pensions, as well as an insurance-based health system that often makes care more expensive for women, the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions.

The text also includes references to the deeply held religious beliefs of some of its authors. (Mr. Silva, for example, lives in a house specifically for followers of Opus Dei, a strict Catholic group whose members are often celibate.)

The proposed language could lead to laws giving institutions the right to be so-called conscientious objectors, meaning health clinics could refuse to perform abortions and businesses could theoretically invoke their religious beliefs to refuse services to certain people. groups, such as gay couples or transgender people.

Mr Silva said he was against abortion, but that the Constitution was not the place to challenge it.

Yet the provision that has received by far the most attention is a one-word change to the current Constitution’s language on the right to life. The proposed draft refers to the protection of the life of “those who will be born”, rather than “who will be born” in the current Charter.

Many Chileans fear this change could allow courts to strike down Chilean law allowing abortion in certain circumstances.

Polls have been suggesting for months that Chileans would reject the proposed text, although the margin has narrowed recently. Chilean politicians and the government have said that if rejected, they would scrap the idea of ​​writing a new constitution, at least for now.

If it were rejected, it would be very unusual. Before last year’s Chilean plebiscite, voters had approved 94 percent of 179 full constitutional referendums worldwide since 1789, according to research by Zachary Elkins and Alex Hudson, two American political scientists.

According to their analysis, in two years Chile could count only the 12th and 13th rejection of a new constitution in modern history.

Mr. Gatica, what have you he founded a rock band along with seven other protesters who lost their sight in 2019 demonstrations, he said that regardless of Sunday’s outcome, Chile will not have achieved the future it had hoped for.

“It’s disappointing, but I understand that social processes are like that,” he said. “At least I won’t give up on continuing to ask for things to change.”

Pascale Bonnefoy contributed to the reporting.