Chile launches the “beautiful challenge” of drafting a new constitution | Politics News

Santiago, Chile – A widespread sense of anticipation hangs over Chile, as the country’s newly elected constitutional assembly kicks off on Sunday.

The assembly – made up of a large portion of the country’s diverse population – is tasked with drafting a new constitution that will carry the nation forward for decades to come. Many call it a historic moment; it is the first time in history that Chile has elected individuals and commissioned them to draft a constitution.

But the assembly reflects a deeply polarized country, and experts say there are many challenges ahead, including the need to build trust between ideologically diverse constituents.

“We always knew that the scenario would be harsh, even hostile. But this is normal because many members of the assembly see in the constitutional process the moment to repay the historic debts of each marginalized group, ”said Cristobal Bellolio, lawyer and professor at Universidad Adolfo Ibañez, who s’ is presented without success for a place. in the congress.

“But I hope that when the time comes to make deals, trust will prevail among the voters.”

New political system

In the May elections to choose members of the Constitutional Assembly, the Conservatives won only 37 of 155 seats, essentially depriving them of the ability to veto the outcome of the new Magna Carta. The current right-wing Chilean government does not believe in the need for a new constitution, which will replace the current one, written in the 1980s under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

But the status quo no longer works for many of Chile’s nearly 19 million citizens, and a social uprising in October 2019 forced the country’s elites to accept a different system, resulting in the formation of the constitutional assembly.

At least 77 of elected voters, or about 50 percent of the total, support policies aimed at ending the state’s subsidiary role and its neoliberal economic model, which has left the poor and middle classes behind for decades. decades.

These constituents seek to strengthen the rights of workers and women and to abolish the pension system. The current private pension system, put in place during the Pinochet years, requires workers to deposit their retirement savings into individual accounts managed by private entities.

Chileans also demand that their constituents lobby for the right to good public health and education, equal rights for women, non-discrimination for minority groups and sustainable environmental regulations.

But Guillermo Larrain, economist and author of The Stability of the Social Contract in Chile, said people shouldn’t expect miracles. “A new constitution will change structures, but not necessarily behavior. In the short term at least, it’s hard to think Chile will become a paradise of equality and inclusiveness, ”Larrain told Al Jazeera.

“The main task of the Constitutional Assembly is to define a new political regime for Chile that improves the representation of citizens and the governance of those who hold power,” he added.

First steps

Taking place against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the 155 elected voters will meet on Sunday for their first session under an outdoor tent set up on the grounds of the former National Congress building in Santiago.

Their supporters will accompany them on foot. Government officials have said police will not intervene if the protests remain peaceful.

The Mapuche, who number nearly two million in Chile, will hold a ceremony before the start of the session atop the hill in Huelen – where Santiago was founded by the Spaniards, a 10-minute walk from the former Congress site national.

Large screens will also be placed in various places near the Congress building to allow people to follow the progress of the session.

In their first act, voters will choose a president and vice-president and decide what rules will remain in place for the convention’s one-year term. The assembly will end its mission with a new government in power, with presidential elections scheduled for November.

The new constitution is expected to go to a referendum in 2022.

Screens reading ‘Constitutional Convention’ can be seen inside the old Congress building, where a new Chilean constitution will be drafted in Santiago [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Controversy, tensions

The week leading up to Sunday’s inaugural session, however, was marked by some controversy, as the government of outgoing President Sebastian Pinera refused to consider a request from indigenous peoples, who hold 17 reserved seats in the assembly, to express in their own language. during meetings.

The government also said it did not plan to attend the opening ceremony.

While many Tory voters have publicly expressed their desire for dialogue, they have remained silent on most burning issues, including what the left calls political prisoners. More than 11,300 people were arrested and 2,500 imprisoned during the social uprising between October 2019 and March 2020, according to the Chilean Institute of Human Rights. The government has consistently denied that there are political prisoners in the country.

Conservative members of the assembly have also tried to distance themselves from the largely unpopular Pinera government. Al Jazeera contacted five voters on the Conservative wing, but all declined the interview request.

Meanwhile, some members of the assembly who define themselves as “non-neutral independents” – and who constitute a significant center-left bloc – say they “will not take orders from political parties or take instructions from political parties. no government, parliamentarian or interference from any pressure group that intends to instrumentalize the constituent process ”.

With an assembly made up of members with such diverse ideologies, it will be essential to build trust not only among the voters but also with the Chilean people.

“One of the biggest challenges of this convention is to learn to work together, to know each other, to be able to break down the barriers of mistrust and fear. We have to erase the logic that if you are not with me you are a traitor, ”said Malucha Pinto, actress and independent constituent member.

“We have to understand that we are faced with something completely new that we are not used to. It is a great and beautiful challenge that we as a country also face in the future. “

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