Chile prepares to put Pinochet’s Constitution to rest

Leftists organize drives for constitutional reform ahead of Sunday’s presidential race

A woman walks past a campaign poster for Michelle Bachelet in Santiago.
A woman walks past a campaign poster for Michelle Bachelet in Santiago.HECTOR RETAMAL (AFP)

On March 11, 1981, the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship introduced a new Constitution following a plebiscite that was held without officials making public any voting lists or even the results.

Chile’s Constitution gave powers to the military to introduce a new social and economic order in the country following a brief Marxist experiment by President Salvador Allende who was overthrown in a bloody coup in 1973 by Pinochet’s forces.

More than 30 later, Pinochet’s Constitution has become a central issue in Chile’s presidential election campaign. With the vote scheduled for Sunday, eight of the nine candidates favor changing the Constitution.

But it is the leftist groups supporting former President Michelle Bachelet, who leads in all polls, that have been the most vocal in pushing for a constituent assembly.

The last changes were made in 2005 when then-President Ricardo Lagos signed in law reforms that eliminated certain authoritarian clauses, such as the rules on how senators were appointed, and gave power to the executive to remove military chiefs. However, leftist politicians believe those changes were not sufficient.

“Lagos made a mistake and he has now admitted this,” said Socialist Senator Carlos Ominami, his former campaign manager.

When she left New York in March after serving as head of UN Women, Bachelet announced that constitutional reform would be one of her top three priorities if she was elected president. Tax and education reforms would be the other two.

While the former president, who served from 2006 to 2010, has said there would be “democratic and institutional participation” in any such reform, she has yet to give any details as to what will be included.

But the idea behind the reform would be to do away with the “binominal” electoral system, where the parties form blocs or coalitions and present their candidates on a slate. There are also proposals to reduce the high number of votes needed in Congress for laws to be passed.

Bachelet’s supporters know that organizing a constituent assembly in a country where many sectors still support the dictatorship will be a delicate issue. Her platform is based on reform, and she hasn’t gone back on her ideas to introduce gradual changes, said one influential member of her campaign, who added that the biggest question mark was whether Chile’s conservative forces would try to block it.

Bachelet has already started putting pressure on her adversaries not to stop the people from calling for a constituent assembly.

“If a scenario arose in which a complete reform of the Constitution failed, the possibility opens for the president to appeal to the people to demand a constituent assembly,” said lawyer Francisco Zúñiga, former chairman of a commission that Bachelet appointed to look at constitutional reform.

A growing number of leftists are demanding the organization of such an assembly – without any interference or participation in the current Congress – to replace the current Constitution, which they consider illegal because it was drafted by a dictatorship.

The Marca Tu Voto (Mark your ballot) platform is trying to place around 40,000 observers and officials at the voting tables on Sunday to encourage at least one million people to write “AC” - the initials of constituent assembly in Spanish - on their ballots.

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