Chile begins ‘beautiful challenge’ of drafting new constitution

New constitutional assembly in the deeply polarised nation must learn to work together and build trust, experts say.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading 'Dignity for Chilean people' during a march towards the Chilean National Congress where the Constituent Assembly will be inaugurated in Santiago, on July 4 [Martin Bernetti/AFP]

Santiago, Chile – A feeling of widespread anticipation hangs over Chile, as the country’s newly elected constitutional assembly will be inaugurated on Sunday.

The assembly – made up of a broad swath of the country’s diverse population – is tasked with drafting a new constitution that will carry the nation into the coming decades. Many are calling this a historic moment; it is the first time in history that Chile has elected individuals and tasked them with drafting a constitution.

But the assembly reflects a deeply polarised country and experts say many challenges lay ahead, including most notably a need to build trust among the ideologically diverse constituents.

“We always knew the scenario would be harsh, even hostile. But this is normal because many of the assembly members see the constitutional process as the moment to repay the historical debts of every group that has been marginalised,” said Cristobal Bellolio, a lawyer and professor at Universidad Adolfo Ibañez, who unsuccessfully ran for a spot in the convention.

“But I hope that when the moment comes to reach agreements, trust will prevail among the constituents.”

New political system

In May elections to choose the constitutional assembly members, conservatives obtained only 37 of 155 seats, essentially stripping them of the ability to veto the outcome of the new Magna Carta. Chile’s current right-leaning 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 agree to a different system, resulting in the formation of the constitutional assembly.

At least 77 of the elected constituents, or about 50 percent of the total, favour policies to end the subsidiary role of the state and its neoliberal economic model, which has left out the poor and middle classes for decades.

These constituents are seeking to strengthen labour and women’s rights and abolish the pension system. The current private pension system, established during the Pinochet years, forces workers to deposit their retirement savings in individual accounts handled by private entities.

Chileans are also demanding their constituents push for the right to good public health and education, equal rights for women, non-discrimination for minority groups and viable environmental regulations.

But Guillermo Larrain, an economist and author of The Stability of the Social Contract in Chile, said people should not expect miracles. “A new constitution will change structures, but not necessarily behaviour. In the short term at least, it is difficult to think that Chile will turn into the paradise of equality and inclusivity,” 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 who holds power,” he added.

First actions

Taking place against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the 155 elected constituents will gather for their first session on Sunday in an open-air tent set up on the grounds of the former National Congress building in Santiago.

Their supporters will accompany them on foot. Government authorities have said the police will not interfere if the demonstrations remain peaceful.

The Mapuche, who number nearly two million in Chile, will hold a ceremony before the session starts at the top of Huelen Hill – where Santiago was founded by the Spaniards, a 10-minute walk to the former site of the National Congress.

Big screens will also be placed at different points near the Congress building to allow people to watch how the session unfolds.

In their first act, the constituents will choose a president and vice president and decide on rules that will remain in place for the convention’s one-year mandate. The assembly will finish its mission with a new government in power, as presidential elections are scheduled for November.

The new constitution is expected to be submitted to a referendum in 2022.

Screens reading ‘Constitutional convention’ are seen inside the former Congress building, where a new Chilean constitution will be developed in Santiago [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Controversy, tensions

The week leading up to Sunday’s inaugural session has been marked by some controversy, however, as the government of outgoing President Sebastian Pinera refused to consider a request by Indigenous people, who hold 17 reserved seats on the assembly, to express themselves in their own languages during the meetings.

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

While many conservative constituents publicly conveyed a desire for dialogue, they have remained silent on most of the hot button issues, including what the left calls political prisoners. More than 11,300 people were arrested and 2,500 were imprisoned during the social uprising between October 2019 and March 2020, according to the Institute of Human Rights in Chile. The government has systematically denied that there are political prisoners in the country.

Conservative members of the assembly have also tried to put some distance between themselves and the government of Pinera, who is widely unpopular. Al Jazeera contacted five conservative-wing constituents, but all turned down the request for an interview.

Meanwhile, some assembly members who define themselves as “non-neutral independents” – and who make up an important, centre-left bloc – say they “will not take orders from political parties nor instructions from any government, parliamentarians or interference from any pressure group that intends to instrumentalise the constituent process”.

With the assembly composed of members who hold such a wide variety of ideologies, building trust not only among the constituents but also with the Chilean people will be paramount.

“One of the greatest challenges of this convention is learning to work together, getting to know each other, to be able to bring down the barriers of mistrust and fear. We must erase the logic of if you are not with me, you are a traitor,” said Malucha Pinto, an actress and independent constituent member.

“We must understand that we are facing something completely new for which we do not have the practice. It is a huge and beautiful challenge that we also face as a country in the future.”

Source: Al Jazeera