Chileans set to call time on Pinochet-era Constitution

An activist holds banners reading "We vote Reject" during a rally in Vina del Mar, Chile, on Oct 22, 2020.
An activist holds banners reading "We vote Reject" during a rally in Vina del Mar, Chile, on Oct 22, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

SANTIAGO (AFP) - A year after the start of months of social unrest, Chileans vote on Sunday (Oct 25) in a referendum to change a dictatorship-era Constitution seen as the bedrock of the nation's glaring inequalities.

The graffiti-scrawled centre of Santiago was tense and expectant under a night-time coronavirus curfew late on Thursday after pro- and anti- change supporters wrapped up their campaigns.

The referendum was a key demand from protesters during a wave of social unrest unseen since the South American's country's return to democracy in 1990.

For those supporting change, mainly the leftist opposition parties, a new charter would allow a fairer social order to replace the persistent inequalities of the Constitution forged under the 1973-1990 rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

"One way or another, changes are coming and it would be better to feel it was thanks to a new Constitution that we all participated in - and not a Constitution created by a small group during a dictatorship so that another small group would stay in power forever," said Ms Alejandra Pizarro, a 23-year-old student at a closing "Approve" rally outside the presidential palace on Thursday.

The new Constitution would expand the role of the state in providing a welfare safety net, and in the process add further pressure on an economy struggling to emerge from the Covid-19 health crisis.

Some conservatives reject the proposed change, saying the Constitution has been key to Chile's decades of economic growth and stability.

"I don't want my country to fall into the same hands that Argentina, Venezuela and a lot of other disastrous countries have," said Mr Hernan Allende, 63, a property broker at a "Reject" rally.

President Sebastian Pinera caved to protesters when he agreed on a constitutional referendum in November, after three weeks of protests, he said.

"That's where this whole disaster comes from, he hasn't had a strong enough hand to stop crime and terrorism," Mr Allende said, alluding to rioters who have regularly faced off against the police.

Progressive oasis

Just over a year ago, when Harvard-educated Pinera vaunted Chile as a progressive "oasis" in a Latin America convulsed by unrest, little could he know that within 10 days, his country would ignite in flames.

The billionaire conservative made a speech in early October holding his copper-rich country up as a symbol of regional stability, but then a student protest against a hike in public transport fares lit the fuse on a tinderbox of long-festering inequality.

It began on Oct 18 as a protest in the Santiago metro, but protesters' grievances in massive anti-government protests quickly expanded to include better health, pensions, salaries and education.

Some 30 people died, most in street clashes with militarised Carabineros forces in the resulting months of turmoil, and thousands were wounded.

A year later, protesters have yet to be assuaged by reforms, but voters are expected to embrace a chance to throw out Pinochet-era laws that concentrated economic power in the hands of a core of Chile's wealthiest families.

Opinion polls show more than 70 per cent support a new Constitution, with just 17 per cent saying no.

Mr Pinera has called on Chileans to vote in numbers in Sunday's historic plebiscite, and to reject the violence that marred last Sunday's anniversary of the start of the protests, after two Catholic churches in central Santiago were set ablaze and police stations attacked.