Chile’s journey towards a constituent assembly

News

Citizen initiatives for the adoption of a new constitution by means of a Constituent Assembly (AC) are gaining ground in Chile.

The conservative right is the fiercest opponent of the political proposal presented by thousands of social organisations that, without the backing of an institutional mechanism in the process of drawing up a new social contract, have already started out on their constituent journey.

The discussion over the imperative need for a Constituent Assembly in Chile has managed to overcome the media blackout and find its place at the centre of national political debate.

The reason for the media’s silence is that reforms could seriously undermine the interests of the national oligarchy.

The current constitution was inherited from the regime of General Augusto Pinochet and contains a series of manacles to preserve the status quo in favour of those who accumulate and concentrate capital in a spectacular fashion.

As Gustavo Ruz, coordinator of the Movement for the Constituent Assembly, clarifies:

“This Constitution, Pinochet’s Constitution, which is the same as Lagos’ Constitution of 2005, with its irrelevant little amendments, consecrates the neoliberal model, obliging us as Chileans to be neoliberal, to have the economy concentrated in the hands of 0.01 per cent of the population, and to have two thirds of our GDP in the hands of foreign capital.

“Chile must put an end to this economic model, because it is the economic model that has failed in the whole of Latin America and the United States.”

Undoubtedly the most powerful restraint of the current constitution is that the quorum required for constitutional reforms is too high and, given the binominal composition of the Congress, all but impossible to reach.

In short, to pass a constitutional reform, the approval of 72 of the 120 deputies is required, and 23 of the 38 senators.

 

Bachelet and the new constitution

One item of the government manifesto that managed to draw sympathy among President Michelle Bachelet’s voters was her pledge to put an end to Pinochet’s constitution.

In her manifesto, she clearly stated that: “The present constitution was drawn up in 1980, at the time of the dictatorship.

It is time we had a fundamental charter that is born under democracy, is the product of a broad and diverse discussion, and covers the changes Chile has undergone in recent decades.”

She goes on to insist that: “At present, democratic processes are held back by authoritarian trammels. We want a constitution without locks and bolts, a constitution that guarantees the full exercise of our rights and duties.

“We must put an end to the current binominal system under which candidates are elected with fewer votes than others who do not reach the chamber. It is also imperative that we amend the extremely high quorums required for the approval of laws.”

For the moment, however, nothing has gone beyond the stage of good intentions, and there are already signs, given the pressure from right-wing forces in conjunction with the business lobby, that she is being pushed to take a different path.

On one the hand, the conservative wing of the Christian Democrats – which is in the Chile’s coalition government alongside Bachelet’s Socialist Party – is insisting that constituent power lies in the parliament and is pulling out all stops to ensure that the birth of a new constitution comes from the Congress, without citizen participation.

Meanwhile, from the seat of the government and the hand of the Secretary General of the presidency, Ximena Rincón – a more “progressive” Christian Democrat – a document is being drawn up that contemplates an initiative to hold “citizen consultation or open councils” across the country, with a view to gathering ideas for the new mechanisms that may give rise to the new constitution.

 

Social movement for a Constituent Assembly

“We have been tripping over and bumping into each other without recognising ourselves as equals, as colleagues, as brothers or sisters. We are living through times in which it is essential that we see each other once again, that we get to know each other once again, that we recognise each other once again.”

These are the opening words of a text by the Vía Popular a la Constituyente (Popular Route to the Constituent Assembly), a movement headed by the Partido Igualdad (Equality Party), which refuses to sit and wait for the government to call a Constituent Assembly.

It has instead opted for direct action, deploying its forces throughout the country, holding discussions and educational talks about the social need to take a leading role in Chile’s future.

A similar initiative is being carried out by the Movement for the Constituent Assembly, with leaders such as Gustavo Ruz and Matías Sagredo.

Their Citizens’ School for a Constituent Assembly has already successfully trained over 150 monitors who will promote the cause in various parts of the country.

Matías Sagredo, speaking at the Fifth International Congress on Constituent Power held in Barcelona earlier this autumn, was emphatic:

“We will not allow them to impose an illegitimate constitution on us once again, usurping constituent power and bestowing it on a Congress to which it does not belong. We will continue working in this direction, with a view to overturning this corrupt system in which economic power governs and citizens’ rights are subordinate to it.”

Another leading player in the constituent process is the Marca AC movement, which called on citizens during the last presidential elections to mark their ballots with the initials AC (for Asamblea Constituyente), as a way of making the popular demand explicit.

There is also the cross-party group of nine senators in favour of a Constituent Assembly, a bloc bringing together the leader of the MAS, Alejandro Navarro, Quintana and Guido Girardi from the PPD, socialists Rabindranath Quinteros, Alfonso de Urresti and Carlos Montes, and independents Antonio Horvath, Alejandro Guillier and Pedro Araya, who are working with the constitutional lawyer Fernando Atria.

In Chile, thousands of citizens, intellectuals, artists, workers and social, environmental and indigenous peoples’ organisations have publically expressed their support for a Constituent Assembly, including national trade union centres such as the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) and the students’ confederation Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile (CONFECH), amongst others.

Lastly, a University of Santiago IPSOS poll, one of the most serious and reputable in the country, revealed that 74 per cent of those questioned considered that the political constitution should be replaced.

 

Main constitutional demands:

- Free and quality public education
- Re-nationalisation of copper and large-scale mining
- Repeal of the Water Code and nationalisation of water
- Decentralisation and greater power for the regions
- End of the binominal system
- Recognition of the indigenous people and declaration of Chile as a plurinational state