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Chile's new constitution must come quicker

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Uta Thofern
November 17, 2019

The fact that Chile’s government and opposition parties have agreed the country needs a new constitution is a historic event. But the process must begin much quicker than planned, says DW's Uta Thofern.

Protesters with Chilean flags in Santiago, Chile
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Agencia Uno

It looks as if Chile will finally get a new constitution. A democratically legitimate constitution, one that is accepted by the majority of the people — 30 years after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. That fact is one of the spectacular successes of the mass protests that have gripped the country over the past several weeks, and should truly be grounds for celebration. But as soon as one reads the fine print, jubilation quickly gives way to headshaking.

Uta Thofern
DW's Uta Thofern

Chileans will be asked to vote next April on whether they want a new constitution and how the convention that writes it should be assembled. In April — six months from now! And the assembly would not convene until September. That means 10 months will have passed before work can even begin.

For weeks, the country has been in chaos as the majority of citizens have taken to the streets, fed up with the inequality, lack of perspective and any government responsibility for public welfare — all of which are codified in Chile's current constitution. The people have clearly run out of patience. Chants of "Chile has awakened" echo through the streets, but it would seem politicians are still sleepwalking.

Read more: Chile protests: 'It's about 30 years of abuse of power'

An unwanted process?

One can hardly imagine that such a drawn-out process will immediately mollify Chilean society and lead to the end of mass demonstrations. The process of convening a constitutional assembly is being slow-walked to such a degree that one might think some parties don't want the process to take place at all.

Some governing parties are indeed unconvinced of the necessity of a new constitution, and a number of opposition parties want a different process altogether. This makes it all the more significant that all sides have broken with the decades-old taboo of not working together across deep political divides and actually found a compromise.

Chile: The fight for social justice

Fast, but with caution

Yet if this compromise is to heal the injuries that have been inflicted upon Chilean society over the past several weeks, it must be realized much faster. Of course, political decisions take longer in a democratic system. And the process of writing a new constitution will, by necessity, be a tedious one. But the question of a referendum and the election of a constitutional convention has already been decided; the process must simply start much sooner than is currently planned.

Each new day on which peaceful protests end with police confrontation splits society further and erodes the belief that a status quo can be changed by peaceful means.. This also destroys trust in the democratic institutions that a state needs to function. Ultimately, Chile needs a constitution that is supported by the broadest possible majority of its people.    

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Uta Thofern Head of DW's Latin America departments with a focus on democracy, rule of law and human rights