By Laura Gamba
BOGOTA, Colombia (AA) - A referendum Sunday will confront Chile with one of the most significant decisions for the nation in decades.
For the first time in the history of the South American country, voters will be asked to decide on drafting a new Constitution to replace the one written in 1980 under the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. If it passes, it will be the first time since 1833 that the Constitution is drafted by a citizens' commission elected by popular vote.
Fifteen million people will go to the polls to decide whether to scrap their Carta Magna and who will author a new one: a commission of popularly elected representatives or a mixed convention of lawmakers and citizens.
The current Constitution was drafted and approved under the military regime of Pinochet, a name synonymous with a violent dictatorship responsible for murder, forced disappearances, torture and mass incarceration.
The supreme law underwent several modifications in recent years that eliminated some authoritarian traces from the original text, such as the designation of senators not elected by popular vote and the role granted to the armed forces as the only guarantors of the institutional order. In economic and social matters, guidelines imposed by the Constitution written in Pinochet's era were maintained without major changes.
It has facilitated the privatization of public sectors such as health, pensions and education, which a large part of Chilean society believes has caused the nation to become one of Latin America’s richest but most unequal countries.
The referendum vote, approved in a political agreement in Congress, was prompted by massive anti-government protests that began last year and continued until March as Chileans gathered nationwide to demand education, health and pension reforms.
More than 30 protesters were killed and thousands were injured in the months after demonstrations began last October amid excessive use of force that was denounced by human rights groups.
The coronavirus pandemic finally contained protesters who hope their demands will be crystallized with the vote.
Political groups have closed campaigns for and against the new Constitution, which at the height of the pandemic, have not involved many face-to-face events.
If the referendum is approved, Chileans will vote in April to elect the commission that will write the Constitution, which will have to be drafted within one year and ratified in a future referendum.
Recent polls show 70% of Chileans are in favor of a new document.
President Sebastian Pinera called the nation to vote and condemned violence that tarnished massive demonstrations last Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of last year´s social protests.
Pinera has bet on the referendum to scale down unrest since last October.
Concerns are mounting that the constitutional reform may not be enough to calm protests and demands for greater equality in a country that was considered the most prosperous in the region but is currently plunged in one of the worst social crises.