Historic Victory in Chile
R Arun Kumar
MAY 16, 2021 will be a historic date for Chile. On that day, people of Chile have elected 155 members to the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. Around 43 per cent of the Chileans (6.4 millions) voted in these elections, apart from voting for the election of 16 governors, 345 mayors, and 2,252 councilors. What is historic is not the simple fact that they had voted. It is the decisive defeat of the right-wing forces that makes this day historic.
Out of the 155 seats in the constituent assembly, those who are unaffiliated with any political party secured 65 seats. The crucial fact is, they are all opposed to neoliberal policies and were elected on an explicit plank of anti-neoliberalism. The front led by the Communist Party of Chile, Apruebo Dignidad, consisting of other Left parties and forces stood second winning 28 seats. The center-left Apruebo won 24 seats. This means, all those forces fighting against neoliberal policies together won 117 seats. On the other hand, the right-wing forces, represented by the current President Pinera’s party and standing for the continuation of neoliberalism, could secure only 37 seats.
The elections to mayoral and governor positions too witnessed the rout of right-wing candidates. Iraci Hassler of the Communist Party of Chile was elected as the mayor of the capital city, Santiago. This is another historic achievement for the Communist Party. Similarly, in many cities and provinces the right-wing candidates were defeated.
These elections were in fact originally scheduled for April, but due to the severity of the pandemic, they were postponed and held in May. The newly elected constituent assembly will be given a year’s time to draft the new constitution, which will again be placed before the people for ratification through a referendum.
The demand for electing a constituent assembly was won after a prolonged and hard fought struggle that started in 2019. The Pinera government had increased the prices of metro fare by 30 cents against which the students started protesting. The government thought that these protests could be suppressed using force. For the first time in the post-dictatorship history of Chile, emergency was declared and military was called to quell these protests. President Pinera declared that the ‘State was at a war against powerful enemies’ and called the protesters ‘vandals, criminals and lumpens’. The armed forces committed some of the worst and brutal atrocities, which included child abuse, sexual abuse and blinded many people by firing pellets.
Against these atrocities, women rose in protest. The working class too joined giving the protests an entirely new dimension. These massive protests forced the government to rescind its decision to increase the metro fares. Protesters demanded dignity, respect and equality for women. Demands for better wages, stable employment, healthcare, education facilities and other social security benefits were raised. The government once again bowed to the protests and though not to the extent that was demanded, had agreed to provide certain welfare benefits to workers and others.
But by then, people started thinking about the system that is repeatedly taking such anti-people decisions and attacking the protesting people with such brutality. They demanded an end to neoliberal policies. They identified that the country’s constitution, written during the Pinochet dictatorship era, was the fountainhead of these policies. The demand for rewriting the constitution was brought forward. This did not happen spontaneously, but was a result of conscious debates and discussions that took place in the society. People are on the streets with a steely determination to ‘fight it out now’, stating that they had ‘lost everything – even their fear’. Once again, the government was forced to cede this demand as people refused to cow down to the State force that was unleashed on them.
The next arena of tussle between the government and the people was on the constitution of the constituent assembly. The government proposed that the current members of the National Assembly will take up that responsibility. People disagreed. They demanded an elected constituent assembly to take up this job and a referendum to decide this question. The government was forced to conduct the referendum, where people overwhelmingly voted for a new constitution to be drafted by an elected constituent assembly.
WHY A NEW CONSTITUTION?
The Pinochet era constitution has enshrined the neoliberal economic model in it. It paved way for the deregulation of markets and privatisation of social security. It does not guarantee healthcare, education or pensions. It does not ensure women’s rights to equality in marriage and access to legal, safe abortion. This constitution, openly favoured capital and big business over the rights of ordinary citizens. More importantly, in a country that had substantial number of indigenous people, the constitution does not even mention indigenous people, forget about guaranteeing their rights.
Emboldened by these constitutional provisions the ruling classes of Chile went on a looting spree. As a result, income inequalities widened. The combined wealth of the country’s billionaires is more than 25 per cent of the country’s GDP. On the other hand, unemployment rate is 55 per cent. Even among those who are employed, the majority of them are precariously employed. On an average, 30 per cent of formal contracts are short-term and do not last for more than 10 months. 50 per cent of the workers cannot accumulate enough savings to fund a minimum adequate pension, as they are privatised. Majority of the people cannot access education or healthcare, due to high fees.
The 2008 economic crisis added to these burdens shouldered by the people. The brewing discontent burst in 2019, and the government’s failure in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic added to it. It is for this reason that the protests that started in 2019 continued even during the pandemic, until their demand for an elected constituent assembly was met. It was the elections for that assembly, which were held now.
COMPOSITION OF THE
The newly elected constituent assembly, as we had seen earlier is dominated by Left and anti-neoliberal forces. The number of right-wing representatives constitute less than one-fourth of the total assembly. The assembly needs a two-thirds majority to include proposals in the draft constitution. As the right-wing representatives are less than one-third, this effectively denies them the opportunity to block progressive provisions from being included in the new constitution.
Even before the elections were held, it was accepted that women will be in equal numbers in the drafting body and indigenous people also be adequately represented. Accordingly, 17 seats were allocated for the indigenous people. The results of the election show that 79 women and 76 men were elected to the assembly. Thus, for the first time, a constituent assembly consisting of a majority of women was elected, which is again historic.
Another interesting fact is that the average age of the elected members is 45, which means that youth are going to play an important role in drafting the constitution.
A media agency in Chile surveyed 132 of the elected representatives and found out some interesting facts. 86.8 per cent of them support the reduction of presidential powers, 51 per cent are for a unicameral parliament, and 65 per cent agree to reform the constitutional court. 91.6 per cent of them want inclusion of access, protection, and distribution of water as a fundamental right and a national public good. 69 per cent stated that the State should guarantee universal access to decent housing. 73 per cent are for equal wages for men and women and the declaration of Chile as a plurinational state.
Chileans hope that the elected members will remember their anger against neoliberal policies, while drafting the new constitution. They want the constitution to ensure State guarantee for education and healthcare. They want recognition of women’s equality, right to abortion and a life with dignity. Equal wages for equal work, right to work, periodic increase in wages, social security provisions for the working class are some other things that the people are looking forward to be guaranteed in the new constitution. Along with these, they want the constitution to accept the plural character of the Chilean society by recognising indigenous communities and guaranteeing them rights.
More importantly, they want a thorough overhaul of the current political system that favours the capitalists and other exploiting classes. They want a constitution that provisions for open and participatory democracy, without any chance for curtailment of human rights.
In a word, Chileans are aspiring for a constitution that would guarantee them a future with dignity. It is for this reason they had elected young members, the majority of whom are women, to the constituent assembly.