On 25 October in Chile, around 7.5 million people voted in a historic referendum on whether to write a new constitution to replace the current one — enacted in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — and on the democratic mechanism to write this new constitution.
The option of crafting a new constitution won, with an overwhelming majority of nearly 80%. A similar percentage supported a constitutional convention — a group completely composed of citizens democratically elected for this purpose — as the mechanism to write the new constitution.
This new scenario brings chances to change the neoliberal model dominant in the country, and which has stirred protests during this last year. It also opens new challenges.
The referendum is an outcome of the intense period of uprisings and protest movements from October 2019. Beyond the institutional achievements, that process has been marked by strong repression from the government, by the police forces.
One ongoing demand is to resolve the situation of people who were put in prison in the context of the protests. The Institute of Human Rights of Chile has confirmed that more than 11,300 people were arrested and 2,500 imprisoned between October 2019 and March 2020. The lawyer Nicolás Toro says such arrests have been used as “an instrument of political repression destined to contain all kinds of dissent or protest”.
The Institute for Human Rights has presented 2,520 lawsuits for violations of human rights in the context of the protests. Protesters have often suffered eye trauma, which has affected 163 people, 32 of whom have lost their vision.
Amnesty International says that Chile has an excessive use of force and human rights violation, not just during these demonstrations, but as a “constant and historical pattern that highlights the need for a thorough structural reform of the Chilean National Police”.
The context of the pandemic has brought new challenges for the protest movement in organising actions and keeping up a public presence. With such measures as lockdown and curfews, new specific demands for economic and social support have been added to the historical ones, and the police repression has been reinforced.
As regards the further political process coming through the referendum, there are also some challenges. The referendum was favourable for the big majority who supported the structural changes pursued by the protest movement. In this context, gender parity is a condition already guarantee by the political agreement on the new constitutional process, making this new constitution the first to be crafted by an equal number of women and men.
The demands for representation of diverse groups of the population are not finished. The representation of indigenous peoples through reserved seats is still being discussed.
Representation of autonomous citizens not depending on political parties, the feminist movement, and LGBTQ+ and environmental movements among others, is an ongoing struggle that citizens have to consider in the definition of the members to be elected for the constitutional convention.
Without strong pressure from social movements, political parties can see an opportunity to co-opt this political process, by imposing candidates who represents their interests. In that case, citizens could lose their leading role in shaping the political agenda.
The action and pressure of the citizenry, as an actor that can influence the agenda, outside of the formal constitutional process, is essential. In that sense, the constituent process does not begin and end with the constituent assembly to be elected next April 2021. Recognition of the diverse expressions of popular organisation that citizens have autonomously organised since October 2019 — such as local councils, assemblies and neighbours’ meetings — is essential.
As the Coordinadora de Asambleas Territoriales (CAT) stated at the beginning of this year “the Coordination should contribute to strengthen the development and autonomy of the assemblies, articulate the mobilization, unite our demands from the local to the national and move towards a Popular Constituent Assembly so a change of the Constitution in Chile responds to the broader popular leadership”.