For some they are the most important elections [in Chile] since the plebiscite that marked the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), for others these elections will set the rules of the game for the next decades. Whatever the approach, no one doubts the significance of the elections that Chile will experience this weekend. The star will undoubtedly be the Constituent election, which should bury the dictator’s legacy.
1. What is being voted on
Chile faces four simultaneous elections on May 15 and 16 in which 16,730 candidates participate: municipal and regional elections, in which mayors, councilors and governors will be chosen, and constituents, in which Chileans will vote to elect the 155 candidates who will write the new Constitution.
More than 1,300 candidates are applying to be part of the Constitutional Convention. Among them are members of traditional and independent parties.
Those elected will have nine months to present a new Magna Carta draft, a period that could be extended for another three months. Thus, in mid-2022, Chile will hold a new plebiscite to approve or reject the new Constitution.
There are no surveys that forecast the result of the Constituent Assembly, due to its unprecedented nature, the large number of candidates, and the difficulties in taking samples.
Regarding the municipal elections, Chileans must elect the mayors and councilors of 346 communes (municipalities), in addition to the governors of the 16 regions in which the country is divided, who will remain in office for four years.
2. Gender parity and participation of Indigenous peoples
One of the greatest achievements of the Chilean feminist movement was to make the Constitutional Convention a gender-balanced organization. This is something unprecedented and will make Chile the first country in the world to have a Magna Carta written by an equal number of men and women.
Parity was a demand that was born in the streets, during the social protests that began in 2019, in which women played a leading role. It soon entered the agendas of many women parliamentarians who made it a reality through the convocation of the Constituent Assembly.
In addition to women, Indigenous peoples are also guaranteed participation—17 of the 155 seats in the body have been reserved for Indigenous peoples. Chile, where there are a dozen native peoples representing 12.8% of the national population, is one of the few countries in Latin America that does not recognize Indigenous peoples in its Constitution.
3. The origin of the constituent process
In October 2019, a wave of massive protests broke out in Chile, which began as a complaint against the subway ticket price and immediately became a popular clamor for a more egalitarian socioeconomic model. The repression unleashed by the government of Sebastián Piñera left some thirty dead and thousands of injured.
In response to the riots, the possibility of drafting a new Constitution to replace the current one, inherited from Pinochet, was raised, considered by many to be the origin of the great inequalities in the country since, among other anti-democratic provisions, it laid the foundations for the privatization of basic services such as water, health and pensions.
The possibility of writing a new fundamental law materialized last October, with the celebration of a historic plebiscite approved by an overwhelming majority (80%) to banish the current constitution.
4. The first governors
For the first time since Chile returned to democracy, citizens will be able to elect the authorities of the 16 administrative regions into which the country is divided. Until now, the important regional post of intendant was appointed by the president himself and regional autonomy was rather limited.
The great battle is centered on the Metropolitan Region, which includes Santiago, and where more than eight million people live, although the election is also very close in the Valparaíso region, where the country’s large ports and part of the farming industry is located.
This unprecedented immersion in federalism, however, will also be accompanied by the introduction of Government delegates, one for each region, who will be appointed by the Executive. Two bills that address their powers and limits of each position are still being processed in Parliament.
The new regional governments be installed, therefore, amid uncertainty regarding their powers and the scope of their budgetary autonomy.
5. The ghost of the pandemic
The big unknown is voter participation, which has not exceeded 50% since voting was made optional in 2012 [it was mandatory prior to that date], with the exception of last October’s plebiscite (50.9%).
Analysts consider that the complexity of the elections and the wide electoral field can play against and discourage voting, although it is calculated that despite the number of ballots, voting will not take more than four minutes. In the October referendum, voting took an average of one minute.
The pandemic, which has already left 1.3 million infected and approximately 27,000 dead, and still restricts about 90% of the country to quarantine on weekends, will be the most important factor.
If in October many older voters—those most likely to participate—stayed at home for fear of contagion, it is expected that this weekend they will go out to vote en masse because they are already immunized.
With 19 million inhabitants, Chile is one of the countries with the highest percentage of the population vaccinated. About 50% have already received at least one dose.
The elections were to be held in April and were postponed due to the pandemic. Finally, they will be held over two days, Saturday and Sunday—something unprecedented in Latin America—precisely to discourage large crowds and encourage people to attend to vote.
Featured image: People marching in Chile demanding a new constitution. File photo courtesy of Resumen Latinoamericano.
Translation: Orinoco Tribune