Chileans set to call time on Pinochet-era constitution

Santiago (AFP) –


A year after the start of a mass wave of social unrest, Chileans vote Sunday in a referendum to change a dictatorship-era constitution seen as the bedrock of the nation's glaring inequalities.

Demonstrators were gathering Friday in Santiago's Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the protests, amid a heavy police presence for the last chance to voice their demands before Sunday's historic vote.

The referendum was a key requirement from protesters during months of social unrest unseen since the South American's country's return to democracy in 1990.

President Sebastian Pinera has called on Chileans to vote in numbers in the historic plebiscite, and to reject the violence that marred last Sunday's anniversary of the start of the protests, after two Catholic churches in central Santiago were set ablaze and police stations attacked.

Pinera, a conservative billionaire, has remained publicly neutral during the campaign.

Chileans will be asked two questions on Sunday; to approve or reject a new constitution, and if so, what kind of body should draft it -- a mixed assembly composed equally of lawmakers and citizens, or a convention made up entirely of citizens.

Opinion polls show more than 70 percent support a new constitution, with just 17 percent voting for rejection. Polls also indicate 70 percent will back a constituent all-citizen convention, to be elected in April 2021.

- Persistent inequalities -

For those supporting change, mainly the leftist opposition parties, a new charter would allow a fairer social order to replace the persistent inequalities of the constitution forged under the 1973-1990 rule of Augusto Pinochet.

"One way or another changes are coming and it would be better to feel it was thanks to a new constitution that we all participated in -- and not a constitution created by a small group during a dictatorship so that another small group would stay in power forever," said Alejandra Pizarro, a 23-year-old student at an "Approve" rally outside the presidential palace late Thursday.

The new constitution would expand the role of the state in providing a welfare safety net, and in the process add further pressure on an economy struggling to emerge from the Covid-19 health crisis.

Some conservatives reject the proposed change, saying the constitution has been key to Chile's decades of economic growth and stability.

"I don't want my country to fall into the same hands that Argentina, Venezuela and a lot of other disastrous countries have," said Hernan Allende, 63, a property broker at a "Reject" rally.

President Sebastian Pinera caved in to protesters when he agreed on a constitutional referendum in November after three weeks of protests, he said.

"That's where this whole disaster comes from, he hasn't had a strong enough hand to stop crime and terrorism," Allende said, alluding to rioters who have regularly faced off against the police.

- Progressive oasis -

Just over a year ago, when Harvard-educated billionaire Pinera vaunted Chile as a progressive "oasis" in a Latin America convulsed by unrest, little could he know that within 10 days his country would ignite in flames.

The billionaire conservative made a speech in early October holding his copper-rich country up as a symbol of regional stability, but then a student protest against a hike in public transport fares lit the fuse on a tinderbox of long-festering inequality.

It began on October 18 as a protest in the Santiago metro, but protesters' grievances in massive anti-government protests quickly expanded to include demands for better health, pensions, salaries and education.

Some 30 people died, most in street clashes with militarized Carabineros forces in the resulting months of turmoil, and thousands were wounded.

A year later, protesters have yet to be assuaged by reforms, but voters are expected to embrace a chance to throw out Pinochet-era laws that concentrated economic power in the hands of a core of Chile's wealthiest families.