chile referendum

“Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”

These were the last words of Chilean President Salvador Allende to his people amidst a US-sponsored coup d’état that toppled the democratically-elected government in Chile on September 11, 1973. Forty-seven years after the bloody coup, Chile has proven that President Allende’s sacrifice for democracy has not gone in vain.

In a referendum held in response to a year-long protest demanding a new constitution for the nation, Chileans have voted to rewrite the constitution imposed under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet who helmed the military government that ruled Chile for long 17 years following the coup. The exit poll of the plebiscite showed over 78.24 per cent have voted in favour of a new constitution. Hundreds of pro-reform demonstrators, overjoyed at the exit poll, took to the streets of Santiago and other cities to celebrate their victory.

The mass anti-government movement in Chile began a year ago in October last year when authorities hiked metro fare in Santiago by 30 pesos. It did never occur to them that their decision would elicit such a response from the public. It all began with students hitting the streets calling for people to evade fares. A campaign on social media with the hashtag #evasionmasiva (mass evasion) also drew support. The protest gathered steam, and hundreds of thousands of Chileans came out and flooded the streets to put an end to inequality.

Chile is a classic example of how the neo-liberal policies of the government and privatisation could exacerbate the disparity in society. Though poverty has come down to a great extent in the nation in the last two decades, the degree of inequality worsened with many left to struggle for a living. This sowed angst among the people of Chile, which had been fomenting for all these years. The embroiling protest gave a sudden expression to their anger and eventually evolved as a movement demanding for sweeping reforms.

What had begun as a protest against metro fare hike metamorphosed into a popular uprising for a larger and noble cause? The movement for reform demanded changes to privatised education, health, and pension sectors, which converged into a call for renouncing the Pinochet-era constitution enshrining neo-liberal policies. Protesters condemned the constitution written by Pinochet’s adviser Jaime Guzmán as “illegitimate” as it “only allowed progress to those who have money”.

The October referendum has provided an institutional leeway to draft a new constitution of Chile by an elected body. Political and social groups have a two-month time frame to nominate the candidates, and elections will be in April next year. The 155-member elected constitutional assembly, comprising for an equal number of men and women, would draft the constitution in nine months with a three-month grace period. The new draft must be approved by the majority of the citizens to replace the present one.

Even Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has acknowledged the results of the referendum. The Chileans have fought a noble battle, but it is far from over. A victory in the referendum is decisive, but the real battle for a constitution fostering freedom, equality, justice and democracy is in the offing. The election to the constitutional assembly and the drafting of the new constitution are crucial. The people must not let the fire inside them get doused until their dream for equal society fruition.

Jestin Abraham is a journalist


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