Thousands march in Chile to demand constitutional reform
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Thousands march in Chile to demand constitutional reform

By Amanda Rutllant and Laurie Blair

Thousands of protesters took to Santiago’s principal thoroughfare on Sunday to demand the total reform of Chile’s Constitution, created in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

In a sea of color, singing “Pinochet’s Constitution is coming down,” some 3,000 demonstrators marched down the Alameda and past La Moneda palace, demanding the creation of a citizen-led Constituent Assembly to devise a new set of rules to govern the country.

Former presidential candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami, as well as rising stars in the Chilean political firmament such as deputies Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson joined forces with a broad array of civil society groups, led by coordinating organization MarcaAC.

“We’re absolutely certain that, to have a country that can move forward towards the future, we need to have clearer rules about how our democracy works,” Jackson told Latin Correspondent.

“The current constitution is completely lacking in legitimacy and lacks any mechanism to make it legitimate…it should be citizens who chose the mechanism through a popular vote,” he added.

Demonstrators march in favor of reforming Chile's constitution. Photo: Laurie Blair

Demonstrators march in favor of reforming Chile’s constitution. Photo: Laurie Blair

Their demands aren’t new. During the 2013 elections, MarcaAC — under the name Marca Tu Voto (Mark Your Vote) — led a nationwide campaign for Chileans to mark their ballot papers with the initials “AC.” According to their own figures, the initiative received just over 10 percent of votes cast in the second round of presidential polls.

President Michelle Bachelet also made constitutional reform a key component of her campaign, and hailed her victory as a vote for constitutional change. But Bachelet was vague on details, and her administration differs with MarcaAC on the method of choice. A panel of experts is one likely option, with the suggested formation of local cabildos (councils) having proved unpopular.

Substantive progress has been slow, and critics fear that — alongside recent proposed changes to Chile’s controversial electoral rules — reform will be as piecemeal as the 17 previous changes to the constitution since 1989. Two-thirds of the Chilean Senate and Chamber of Deputies would have to back a constitutional amendment just to pave the way for the creation of a Constituent Assembly.

Moreover, as Jackson himself noted, Sunday’s march was tiny in comparison to the 2011 student protests that brought him and Vallejo to prominence. The AC movement faces a major challenge in translating a complex issue into language that ordinary people can relate to. A lack of public understanding can be traced in part to the removal of civic education from the school curriculum under Pinochet.

“Clearly, these aren’t the same numbers that we saw in the student marches,” Jackson admitted.

“We need to carry out a massive effort to explain why this is so important, and why it affects citizens’ everyday lives, from education to decentralization, pensions to health,” he added.

In addition, the sheer diversity of Sunday’s demonstrators — from supporters of the Allendist Socialist Party, through the Atheist Society to LGBT rights organization Movilh — reflects the historical fragmentation of Chile’s progressive left that makes it harder to achieve critical mass.

But both critics and adherents are right to identify the pervasive influence of the 1980 constitution throughout all areas of Chilean public life. It allows courts to double penalties and lower the admissibility threshold for evidence in terrorism trials. It strengthens the immunity of businesses to human rights complaints, and paved the way for a wholesale liberalization of Chilean society, the effects of which are visible everywhere today.

Defenders of Pinochet’s constitution point to the stability and economic development that came in its wake, and many claim that any problem lies with Chile’s political class, rather than the overriding structure. Constitution detractors will have to bring more people into the conversation if it is to be ordinary citizens — and not the government — who take the lead in working for change.

A demonstrator at Sunday's protests. Photo: Laurie Blair

A demonstrator at Sunday’s protests. Photo: Laurie Blair