What is at stake in Chile’s upcoming elections

Chileans will choose members who will draw up a new constitution as well as state and local officials in elections.

Indigenous Mapuche candidate Juana Millal plays a kultrun drum while campaigning in Santiago, Chile. Chileans will vote on May 15 and 16 to elect members who will draft a new constitution [Esteban Felix/AP Photo]

Santiago, Chile – On a sunny winter’s day in Chile’s capital, a group of neighbours in La Reina, a county on Santiago’s east side, gathered to support the candidates for the Constitutional Convention, days before what could be the country’s most important election ever. In good spirits, they waved flags, laughed and greeted each other with their elbows. They wore masks and shared alcohol gel.

Renato Garrido, one of the candidates, urged people to vote because, he said: “A new constitution will be the only way our country can have participation, justice, true freedom and growth. When the citizens feel they are being heard they can reach agreements, with respect and tolerance for all opinions. We must do this out of our love for Chile.”

On May 15 and 16, Chileans will go to the polls to elect 155 members of the Constitutional Convention.  Its mission will be the writing of a new constitution which should be submitted to a referendum in 2022. After a long struggle, the current constitution – written in the ’80s under the Pinochet dictatorship and much amended in the years since – will be left aside.

More than 1,300 candidates will compete to become members of the Constitutional Convention. For the first time, this election includes a gender parity requirement – giving women a proportional number of seats, and will include 17 reserved spaces for Indigenous people.

Supporters of the Constitutional Convention rally at Plaza Egaña metro station, in Santiago, Chile [Odette Magnet/Al Jazeera]

Election experts fear that people might not vote in large numbers – not only because of the pandemic but because the government has released little information about the entire process.

“Neither the state nor the government have seriously acknowledged that part of the population does not know that elections will take place this weekend,” Marta Lagos, director of Mori Chile, a well-known polling company, said on national television.

Chilean voters will also elect mayors, governors and city councillors nationwide. The presidential election is scheduled for November.

This ambitious election calendar will be carried out while the country endures difficult times: a state of emergency, a nightly curfew, more than 10 percent of the working-age population (two and a half million people) unemployed, and a pandemic that has killed nearly 27,000 people. The elections were originally planned for April but were postponed due to the high number of  people with coronavirus infections.

Health authorities insist that Chileans will be able to vote in a safe environment because cases have gone down in recent weeks, due in part to Chile´s successful vaccination campaign.

More than seven million people have already received their two shots (47 percent of the “target population”). But the nightmare is not yet over – about 40 percent of the country is still in lockdown.

According to Javiera Parada, a cultural consultant, what is at stake with the upcoming elections is “our political generation’s social pact – one that will allow us to recover civil coexistence and renew our institutions and its legitimacy.

“Chile urgently needs to make rules that summon us all. This is key if we want to go back to the path of sustainable development. People know that changing the constitution is not enough, but that it is necessary for a country to have institutions that serve the times and the new society we live in. I believe in people, I believe in Chile and its future.”

Last October, Chileans sent out a clear message in a national plebiscite where 78 percent approved the writing of a new constitution by elected members. They will have nine months to write the new constitution – a deadline that can be extended for an additional three months.

Not everyone is enthusiastic.

“The Constitutional Convention was the result of a lame agreement reached by Congress behind our backs. This will be a transitory constitution and in a couple of years, we will have a new social uprising because people´s demands will not be solved,” Moisés Scherman, an economist, told Al Jazeera. Scherman said he will deliberately spoil his ballot.

Most Chileans appear to agree on one point. Economic growth must lead to comfort and wellbeing for everyone, and not only a few.

In the last two decades, Chile has made progress towards greater economic prosperity and lower poverty. Per capita income more than doubled over the past 20 years and is now the highest in Latin America but progress has stalled. The economy has grown, but under the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera, one percent of the population owns 25 percent of the country’s wealth. It was this state of affairs that triggered the historic social uprisings in October 2019, brutally suppressed by the police.

The upheaval was the result of the people’s dissatisfaction with the economic model and the state of inequity in the country. More than 3,700 people were wounded by police (Carabineros) during the October protests, according to a February 2020 report by the National Institute of Human Rights in Chile.

Some political analysts are concerned that the expectations around the new constitution may turn out to be too ambitious and may not reflect social realities. The citizens want it to include multiple and diverse issues: human, women’s and workers’ rights, health, education, pension funds, defence and protection of childhood, social welfare, fight against crime, gender equality, environment, domestic violence, freedom of expression, and more.

Stickers promoting constituent assembly candidate Diego Riveaux adorn bags of plants to be given away during a campaign event in the Plaza de Armas in Santiago, Chile [Esteban Felix/AP Photo]

Patricio Navia, a political science professor at NYU and Universidad Diego Portales in Chile, says that “people have high expectations about the new constitution. Many people see it as a magic pill that will solve all of Chile’s problems. People are in for a rude awakening when the new constitution is promulgated and none of those promises materialise.”

Navia believes that, for Chile to be able to expand its social safety net, “the country must be able to develop economically much more than it has in the past. For that to happen, there must be clear rules to attract foreign investment and a level playing field to guarantee equal opportunities for all.”

Source: Al Jazeera