Piñera’s Mildly Contentious Constitutional Referendum

  • + An upcoming steamy National Plebiscite is putting Pinera in a mild position of power
  • + Chileans will have to decide whether or not they want to change the archaic Magna Carta
  • + Piñera verified assures that he “is not neutral” regarding the plebiscite and desires a new Chilean Constitution
piñera
El Mundo

Why is Piñera’s heat level mild?

Answer: If the referendum is successful, Piñera will be regarded as the “man that changed Chile.” However, if it fails, his position in power could erode.

Chile is currently undergoing a crucial moment in which Piñera’s management of the events could drastically turn the country’s fate. A key moment in his presidency occurred in 2019 when in October, a series of mass protests occurred in several cities of Chile. Thousands of Chileans took to the streets last year to express their dissatisfaction with social demands, particularly because of the huge inequality in the country.

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 5% of wealth in Chile is concentrated in only the wealthiest 1% of the population. The protests began with a general strike promoted by public sector workers, students and other unions that eventually evolved into scenes of violence, looting or riots in some parts of the country.

In the midst of the huge protests, Piñera declared a state of emergency, authorizing the deployment of the Army. This gave the Army legitimacy to enforce order and prevent any destruction of public property. As a result, dozens of Chileans were detained and brutally harmed. How Piñera handled the protests punished his image and his agenda as his heavy hand and little tolerance  framed him as a frivolous and uncompromising  leader. Hence, the next referendum aims to appease the social outbreak and at the same time, polish his legacy.

The demonstrations resulted in dozens of deaths in different acts of violence that are being investigated; fires, abuses and at least five due to the actions of the security forces. The National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) has reported that 2,392 civilians have been injured, 964 of whom have been injured with riot gear; a material the government announced in late September of this year that it will stop using. Of those cases, a significant number deal with torture and sexual violence.

Even though Piñera pointed out that “we do not tolerate any violation of human rights, nor do we tolerate any impunity,” the president has not condemned or announced investigations into the abuses of force documented by human rights organizations during the protests. Now, serving his second and last  presidential term since 2018, Piñera’s softer strategy to resolve a divided country aims to clean up his image while changing up the Constitution.

What is changing Piñera’s temperature?

Answer: Piñera found that a referendum would provide a covert opportunity for a win-win situation.

If the constitution is changed, the legacy of Sebastián Piñera will mark the history of Chile in a more positive light. As for the people of Chile,  it will involve a democratic,  transparent and  participatory process which will reinforce the lost trust in the institutions and will make trustworthiness the new status quo; a norm where citizens have a voice.

Ultimately, the referendum process would imply bringing back stability in the country to reactivate the Chilean economy, which, in addition to the protests, was also affected by the pandemic. Without a doubt, Pinera’s referendum and its expected effects will be an immense legacy for Piñera, for his party, and for the people of Chile.

Amid the 2020 memorial commemorating the Chilean coup d’état that occurred in 1973, President Piñera claimed in his speech:

“we are convinced that the vast majority [of Chileans] want to perfect, modernize, change our Constitution.”

~President Piñera

The current Constitution stands as a legacy of the dictatorship as it was approved in 1980.  Amid the event, Piñera placed emphasis upon the need to reflect on the “lessons learned” from the past; such as when Pinochet bombed the government headquarters and established a dictatorship that lasted for 17 years. A period of time characterized by severe oppression and no room for opposing voices. 

What remains heavily controversial about the referendum are the measures that took place alongside experiencing the pandemic. Despite criticism, the possibilities of postal voting or home-voting were diminished as they required complex legal reforms. Consequently, the referendum will exclude people with Covid-19 from voting for the constitutional referendum; of course, this represents an action contradictory to the president’s principles of transparency and democracy.

According to a study published by the University of Chile, 82 % of Chilean people would be in favor of the drafting of a new Constitution in the National Plebiscite 2020. However, there are those who do not think that way. The “no is the option that is mainly defended by those that sustain that the Constitution of Chile has fostered greater political stability and greater social development and economics in its history.

Piñera assured that his government respects the two sides of this referendum: approving the drafting of a new fundamental law, or absolutely rejecting it. However, Piñera made it very clear that his government and himself are not neutral to the constitutional process or to the October referendum, as his desire is to have a new Magna Carta for the country. Piñera assures that his government will rely on dialogue, collaboration and agreements” where opposing ideas can meet a common ground and solve problems.

What is driving Piñera?

Answer: The superb opportunity to clear his slate and cement ‘President Piñera’ in Chilean history.

The protests that broke out last year left dozens dead as well as thousands of injured and detained people. To put an end to the chaos that the nation was experiencing in 2019, Piñera proposed three agreements to overcome the crisis after many days of particularly deep demonstrations and violence.

The first measure involves a peace agreement to amend the damages caused. The second was a justice agreement to promote a nation with more equality. Lastly, the third measure was to propose a new Constitution. Piñera considers a new Constitution as a way to bring a better framework of democratic institutions. This later would be done with a ratified plebiscite.

In this way, its citizens shall participate in the drafting of a new Magna Carta but also in its approval. Thus, Piñera; now more serene, highlighted that this referendum is

“an opportunity to achieve a constitutional agreement that allows our Constitution to be a great framework for unity, stability and projection into the future.”

~President Piñera

Convinced that the majority of Chileans want to perfect or change the Constitution as well as replace the heavily embedded structure of Pinochet’s era, the President declared that

“The government listened with attention, sensitivity and a sense of urgency to these demands, and quickly launched a New Social Agenda to take charge and advance solutions to these demands.”

~President Piñera

Ultimately, the referendum’s success would make Piñera the one to disarm the structures of the dictatorship era. Yet, the genesis of the referendum came along three proposals Piñera made to amend and cease the enormous protests and turbulent times Chile underwent exactly last October. Now, a year later, how the measures evolve is yet to be seen. These agreements could mark the beginning of a slow change in Chilean status quo and eventually its political dynamics; for better or for worse.

What does this mean for you?

Answer:

Already postponed once, the Electoral Service has decided to carry out the referendum scheduled for October 25. Piñera is convinced that this referendum comes as a light at the end of the tunnel as he believes that the government proposed

“an institutional and peaceful solution to the conflict through a constitutional reform” at a turbulent time “when democracy was threatened.

~President Piñera

While on one side, the referendum will be an opportunity for the Chilean people to have a say in how their nation is ruled, paradoxically, it excludes those who have the Coronavirus or are afraid of contracting it. In a sense, this exclusion also threatens democracy. 

Another important element in this suffrage is that regardless of what the voter has decided, a second ballot will be delivered where they will be asked which body should write this new Magna Carta. The options are: a Constitutional Mixed Convention; composed of 50% parliamentarians and 50% citizens, or a Constitutional Convention; composed solely of members who will be completely elected by citizens themselves. 

If the drafting of the Constitution is approved, this would place Piñera in a position where his measurements are approved and hopefully grant a solution to the nation´s embedded social dissatisfaction. Piñera could be left standing as the leader who ended an archaic Constitution; a symbol of a tyrannical regime, and started a transition to a ‘new Chile.’ Nevertheless, it still remains to be seen if the replacement of the Magna Carta inherited from a Pinochet dictatorship is the best way to overcome social unrest as Piñera hopes or is just a tawdry strategy.

Isabel Barquin

Research and Analysis Intern