Santiago, Chile – On a sunny winter day in the Chilean capital, a group of residents of La Reina, a county located on the east side of Santiago, gathered to support the candidates for the Constitutional Convention, days before they could be the most important elections in the country. In a good mood, 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 citizens feel heard they can come to agreements, with respect and tolerance to all opinions. We must do it for the love of Chile “.
On May 15 and 16, Chileans will go to the polls to elect 155 members of the Constitutional Convention. Its mission will be to write a new constitution that should be put to a referendum in 2022. After a long struggle, the current constitution, written in the 1980s under the dictatorship of Pinochet and heavily amended in later years, will be left out.
More than 1,300 candidates will compete to become members of the Constitutional Convention. For the first time, these elections include a gender parity requirement: give women a proportional number of seats and will include 17 spaces reserved for indigenous people.
Election experts fear that people will not be able to vote in large numbers, not only because of the pandemic, but because the government has released little information about the whole process.
“Neither the state nor the government has seriously acknowledged that part of the population does not know that the elections will take place this weekend,” Marta Lagos, director of Mori Chile, a well-known polling company, told national television.
Chilean voters will also elect mayors, governors and city councilors across the country. Presidential elections are scheduled for November.
This ambitious electoral calendar will be carried out as long as the country endures difficult times: a state of emergency, a night curfew, more than 10 percent of the working-age population (two and a half million people) in the unemployment and a pandemic that has killed nearly 27,000 people. Elections were initially scheduled 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 dropped in recent weeks, in part due to the success of Chile’s vaccination campaign.
More than seven million people have already received their two shots (47% of the “target population”). But the nightmare is not over yet: about 40 percent of the country is still closed.
According to Javiera Parada, cultural consultant, what is at stake with the next elections is “the social pact of our political generation, which will allow us to recover civil coexistence and renew our institutions and their legitimacy.
“Chile urgently needs to establish rules that call us all. This is key if we are to return to the path of sustainable development. People know that it is not enough to change the constitution, but it is necessary for a country to have institutions that serve the times and the new society in which we live. I believe in people, I believe in Chile and its future. “
Last October, Chileans sent a clear message in a national plebiscite where 78 percent approved the drafting of a new constitution by elected members. They will have nine months to write the new constitution, a term that can be extended for another three months.
Not everyone is excited.
“The Constitutional Convention was the result of a lame agreement reached by Congress behind us. This will be a transitional constitution and in a couple of years we will have a new social insurrection because the demands of the people will not be resolved, ”Moisés Scherman, an economist, told Al Jazeera. Scherman said he will deliberately spoil his ballot.
Most Chileans seem to agree on one point. Economic growth must bring comfort and well-being for everyone, not just a few.
In the last two decades, Chile has moved toward greater economic prosperity and lower poverty. Per capita income has doubled in the last 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, 1% of the population owns 25% of the country’s wealth. It was this state of affairs that triggered the historic social riots of October 2019, brutally suppressed by the police.
The convulsion was the result of people’s dissatisfaction with the country’s economic model and state of inequality. More than 3,700 people were injured 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 expectations around the new constitution are too ambitious and do not reflect social reality. Citizens want it to include multiple and diverse issues: human, women’s and workers’ rights, health, education, pension funds, child advocacy and protection, social welfare, the fight against crime, gender equality, the environment, domestic violence, free speech, and more.
Patricio Navia, a professor of political science at New York University and Diego Portales University in Chile, says that “people have high expectations about the new constitution. Many people see it as a magic pill that will solve all the problems in Chile. People have a rude awakening when the new constitution is enacted and none of these promises materialize.
Navia believes that in order for Chile to expand its social security network, “the country must be able to develop much more economically than it had in the past. For this to happen, there must be clear rules to attract foreign investment and a level playing field to ensure equal opportunities for all. ”