'Allende Is Smiling': Chilean Voters Elect Progressive Alliance to Rewrite Pinochet-Era Constitution

Iraci Hassler, the mayor-elect of downtown Santiago, speaks through a megaphone during a celebration in Santiago, Chile on May 17, 2021. (Photo: Felipe Figueroa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'Allende Is Smiling': Chilean Voters Elect Progressive Alliance to Rewrite Pinochet-Era Constitution

"Chile will be the grave of neoliberalism!"

In a development that was celebrated by champions of democracy around the world, Chilean voters this weekend elected a progressive slate of delegates to the constituent assembly tasked with rewriting the country's right-wing constitution, which was imposed more than 40 years ago during Gen. Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship and has continued to reproduce inequality for over three decades since the end of his rule.

Progressive International tweeted Monday that Chileans took a major step forward in the quest to "bury Pinochet's constitution and write a new future for Chile"--one that includes guaranteed access to public goods such as water, education, healthcare, pensions, and other necessities.

"Chile will be the grave of neoliberalism!" the group added--a particularly meaningful designation given that the country is often referred to as the laboratory of neoliberalism, where the privatization of everything was first tested on an unwilling population.

After a U.S.-backed coup toppled Chile's democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973, Pinochet's regime implemented a wave of pro-market policies under anti-democratic circumstances at the behest of economists trained at the University of Chicago. This led to vast inequalities and rendered egalitarian reform exceedingly difficult, even in the post-dictatorship period that began in 1990.

There have been numerous attempts over the past 30 years to rein in market fundamentalism in Chile, but because neoliberalism was so deeply embedded in the country's 1980 constitution, the reign of Pinochet's politics outlived the military dictator.

During a historic referendum last October, which represented the culmination of a decadeslong revolt against the neoliberal model, Chileans voted in a four-to-one landslide to rewrite the dictatorship-era constitution. Notably, voters chose for the new constitution to be written by a popularly elected assembly of constituents rather than a mixed assembly of politicians and citizens.

At the time, political theorist Melany Cruz called the overwhelming popular support for a new constitution a "chance to bury Pinochet's legacy... and rebuild the country on a truly democratic basis." Still, the question remained: Who would be in charge of the process? Which of the more than 1,300 candidates would be selected for this monumental task?

During this past weekend's election--originally scheduled for April but pushed back due to an increase in coronavirus infections--Chileans were finally given a chance to answer that question definitively.

Of the 155 citizens elected to the constituent assembly, only 38, which is less than a quarter, came from the right-wing coalition known as Vamos por Chile, El Ciudadanoreported.

The Chilean newspaper noted that candidates from the center-left coalition, known as Lista del Apruebo, won 25 seats. Meanwhile, 27 candidates from the left-wing coalition, Apruebo Dignidad, were victorious. Furthermore, 48 seats were picked up by "Independent" candidates whom El Ciudadano described as "mostly linked to social movements in Chile."

In addition, 17 seats at the constitutional convention were reserved for the representation of Indigenous peoples.

By delivering a knockout blow to the country's right-wing, voters ensured that a large majority of the 155 delegates responsible for establishing a new political framework at the constituent assembly will be bringing progressive perspectives rather than neoliberal orthodoxy to the table, increasing the likelihood that a genuinely emancipatory constitution gets created.

"Today the people, the poorest, the homeless, the women, the Mapuche people won!!!" Karol Cariola, a former student leader in the fight for free, high-quality public higher education and a current congressional representative from the Communist Party of Chile, said Monday on social media. "We are breaking the padlock, which has allowed the right to veto transformations."

Greg Grandin, a world-renowned historian of Latin America, tweeted, "Allende is smiling." Alluding to neoliberalism, Grandin added that "it started in Chile. It will end in Chile."

Marxist economist Richard Wolff, author of Democracy at Work, among other books, also chimed in with a congratulatory message that highlighted the key role played by women in Chile's ongoing transformation.

In a world-historic first that feminists say could establish a new global standard for greater equality in politics, Congress mandated gender parity at the constitutional convention, meaning that an equal number of women and men had to be elected. According toReuters, 77 of the 699 women who ran for seats at the constituent assembly were victorious, compared with 78 of the 674 male candidates.

Women candidates did so well, Reuters noted, that the requirement of parity resulted in adjustments having to be made in favor of more men: "A total of five seats were handed to female candidates who polled lower than male counterparts in certain districts to ensure a 50-50 gender split, while seven seats were handed to men who polled lower." As the news outlet noted, some "lamented the fact any ceiling had been placed on victorious female candidates at all."

The Guardianreported that "although Chile's current constitution guarantees equality or nondiscrimination based on sex, it does not ensure women's rights to equality in marriage and stipulates the protection of 'life to be born'--a clause that has blighted access to legal, safe abortion in the country."

While women's rights advocates "acknowledged that not all women in the assembly will share feminist values," they expect the makeup of the constituent assembly to result in a framework that enshrines equal rights for women as well as marginalized groups that have been "excluded from political spaces, including the country's Indigenous communities, LGBT groups, and gender-nonconforming people," the newspaper added.

In addition, although there are no guarantees they were elected to the constituent assembly, at least 5% of parties' candidates were required to be people with disabilities, NACLA noted, offering further evidence of Chileans' efforts to build a more inclusive and representative democracy.

Last year's referendum that rendered the transformation of Chile's constitution possible was not on the political agenda until nationwide protests against austerity erupted in October 2019 following a transit fare hike. As Pablo Abufom wrote at the time, however, the social uprising in Chile is "not about 30 pesos, it's about 30 years."

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera--himself a billionaire whose University of Chicago-trained brother served as one of Pinochet's economists during the military dictatorship--responded viciously to the political unrest, "shooting anti-austerity protesters, blinding and maiming [them] by the thousands," as Ben Norton documented at The Grayzone.

Despite the government's violent repression of demonstrations, which killed 36 people, Chilean citizens' persistent and militant resistance forced Pinera in November 2019 to schedule a plebiscite for April 2020, which was postponed until October of last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The constituent assembly will have nine months to a year to draft a new constitution, the key provisions of which must be approved by a two-thirds majority, necessitating the formation of alliances among members. After that, the Chilean people will be asked next year in another national referendum whether or not they accept the new constitution.

The Chilean left's triumph this weekend was not limited to electing representatives to the constituent assembly. In a historic victory, Iraci Hassler became the first candidate from the Communist Party of Chile to be elected mayor of Santiago's downtown district when she defeated the current right-wing mayor, Felipe Alessandri.

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