Amid unrest, Chile says it will rewrite Pinochet-era constitution

A new constitution has been a central demand of protesters who have been on the streets for the last 3 weeks.

    A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'New Constitution now' during a protest against Chile's government in Santiago, Chile [Jorge Silva/Reuters]
    A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'New Constitution now' during a protest against Chile's government in Santiago, Chile [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

    The Chilean government has agreed to write a new constitution to replace one dating back to the Pinochet dictatorship, a central demand of protesters who have taken to the streets in recent weeks.

    Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel said the president, cabinet members and political allies had agreed that Congress should lead the process of rewriting the constitution, a move likely to upset protesters, however. The document would be put to a public referendum.

    "Above all, we must focus on the goal of reconfiguring the social contract, which has arisen as a fundamental demand of our citizens," Blumel told a news conference on Sunday night.

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    The announcement from President Sebastian Pinera's centre-right government was made after three weeks of protests over inequality and the government's response to demonstrators. 

    At least 20 people have died in the unrest, with several killed by the police and the military, according to officials. Businesses have suffered billions of dollars in damages and Santiago's public transport system has been hobbled due to arson, vandalism and looting.

    A new constitution has repeatedly arisen as a central demand of protesters. Critics have long said the existing document, written and approved during General Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 military dictatorship, lacks legitimacy. 

    Chile
    A woman passes by graffiti that reads 'New Constitution' in Santiago [Rodrigo Arangua/AFP] 

    The document has been tweaked several times since it was enacted in 1980. But those calling for change say any new text must add further protection of social rights and increase citizen participation in the 30-year-old democracy. 

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    Opponents of the overhaul say the current charter has been a pillar of stability for Chile, among the region's strongest and most investor-friendly economies.

    Blumel did not give a timeline for the process but said that the government would move quickly to begin.

    "The best way to proceed is via Congress, with participation from citizens, and then, to submit it to a plebiscite," Blumel said.

    It is unclear what effect the announcement will have on protesters, many of whom have also called for Pinera's resignation. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies