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Celebrations in Chile as Voters Back Rewriting Constitution

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Tens of thousands of Chileans have taken to Santiago’s main square in celebration after people across the country overwhelmingly backed re-writing Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution that many see as the root cause of the country’s social and economic inequalities.

In Santiago’s Plaza Italia, the focus of the massive and often violent protests last year which sparked the demand for a new charter, fireworks rose above huge crowds of jubilant people singing in unison late on Sunday as the word “rebirth” was beamed onto a tower above.

With more than three-quarters of the votes counted in Sunday’s referendum, 78.12 percent of voters had opted for a new constitution drafted by citizens. Many have expressed hopes that a new text will temper an unabashedly capitalist ethos with guarantees of more equal rights to healthcare, pensions and education.

“This triumph belongs to the people, it’s thanks to everyone’s efforts that we are at this moment of celebration,” Daniel, 37, told Reuters News Agency in Santiago’s Plaza Nunoa. “What makes me happiest is the participation of the youth, young people wanting to make changes.”

Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera said if the country had been divided by the protests and debate about whether to approve or reject plans for a new charter, from now on they should unite behind a new text that provided “a home for everyone”.

 “Until now, the constitution has divided us. From today, we must all work together so that the new constitution is the great framework of unity, stability and future,” he said in a speech broadcast from his Moneda Palace surrounded by his cabinet.

The centre-right leader, whose popularity ratings plummeted to record lows during the unrest and have remained in the doldrums, spoke to those who wanted to keep the present constitution credited with making Chile one of Latin America’s economic success stories.

Any new draft must incorporate “the legacy of past generations, the will of present generations and the hopes of generations to come,” he said.

The vote came a year to the day after more than one million people thronged downtown Santiago amid a wave of social unrest that left 30 people dead and thousands wounded.

The sheer size of the October 25 march demonstrated the breadth of social discontent and proved a tipping point in demonstrators’ demands for a referendum. Within weeks, Pinera had agreed to initiate a process to draft a new constitution, beginning with a referendum to decide the fate of the current text.

Chile’s current constitution was drafted by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and was sent to voters at a time where political parties had been banned and the country was subject to heavy censorship.

It was approved by a 66 percent – 30 percent margin in a 1980 plebiscite, but critics said many voters were cowed into acceptance by a regime that had arrested, tortured and killed thousands of suspected leftist opponents following the overthrow of an elected socialist government.

The free-market principles embodied in that document led to a booming economy that continued after the return to democracy in 1990, but not all Chileans shared. A minority was able to take advantage of good, privatised education, health and social security services, while others were forced to rely on sometimes meagre public alternatives. Public pensions for the poorest are slightly more than $200 a month, roughly half the minimum wage.

Cristina Cifuentes, a Santiago-based political analyst, called Sunday’s results a “big blow for the conservative parties” and said a new constitution was necessary to provide equitable access to healthcare, education and pensions systems.

“If you’re born in the least affluent areas of the city, you don’t have access to a good health system, you don’t have good education, you don’t have transport. And you can’t even dream of having a better life. It affects all aspects of life in Chile and that’s why it was so important for Chileans to change the constitution,” she told Al Jazeera.

 “Many people know it’s going to take at least two years to have a new constitution, and that would only set a roadmap for the future. It won’t solve all of this country’s problems, but at least it does give them hope for a new beginning,” she said.

Four-fifths of voters said they wanted the new charter to be drafted by a specially elected body of citizens – made up of half women and half men – over a mixed convention of legislators and citizens, highlighting general mistrust in Chile’s political class.

Members of a 155-seat constitutional convention will be voted in by April 2021 and have up to a year to agree upon a draft text, with proposals approved by a two-thirds majority.

Among issues likely to be at the fore are recognition of Chile’s Mapuche Indigenous population, powers of collective bargaining, water and land rights and privatised systems providing healthcare, education and pensions.

Chileans will then vote again on whether they accept the text or want to revert to the previous constitution.

The National Mining Society (Sonami), which groups the companies in the sector into the world’s largest copper producer, said it hoped for “broad agreement on the principles and norms” that determine the sector’s coexistence with Chilean citizens and that the regulatory certainty that have allowed the sector to flourish would continue.

Al Jazeera

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