Chile starts an intense constituent process to try for the second time a new Magna Carta

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A little over four months after the plebiscite on September 4 in Chile, where 62% of the voters rejected the proposal for a new Constitution drawn up by a convention, the South American country begins with a second attempt to replace the current Fundamental Charter. After intense negotiations in Congress and after last week Parliament approved the constitutional reform that enables the new constituent phase, this Monday the Government of Gabriel Boric promulgated it without major ceremonies and today it was published in the Official Gazette, thus they formally start 12 months of hard work. It will end on December 17 with an exit plebiscite, where citizens will decide whether to approve or reject the new text that seeks to surpass the current one, which dates from 1980, of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, although it was reformed dozens of times in democracy.

It is a very intense and fast process, unlike the failed attempt that took place between 2020 and 2022. Next week Parliament has to appoint a joint committee of experts made up of 24 people – 12 elected by the deputies and 12 by the senators–, who will start working in March and for three months on a draft of the new Constitution and who will have the right to speak during all the months of work and a lot of influence. On February 6, meanwhile, the deadline for the different political forces to nominate their candidates to form the drafting body ends. Composed of 50 people –25 women and 25 men–, the constitutional council will be elected on May 7 through the mechanism of compulsory suffrage, it will begin its work on June 7 and will have five months to draft the proposal, which should be finished on next November 7th.

The new constituent attempt has been classified as baroque due to the amount of equipment, steps and rules it contains beforehand. It was, however, the political formula agreed upon by the forces in Congress to avoid the previous failed experience, which ended in a text that profoundly changed Chilean institutions and was finally widely rejected. “It will be a constitutional debate based on an overlapping consensus among all political forces, including the Communist Party. It is not about limits that come from outside the political process, it is about a consensus generated within it”, explained the lawyer Carlos Peña, in an interview with EL PAÍS. Regarding the criticism for an alleged excess of padlocks, the rector of the Diego Portales University added: “Calling it moorings is to alter its meaning. Would anyone say that the previous consensus that gave rise to the Constitution of 1978 in Spain was actually a mooring?

This same January, Congress must appoint a team of 14 arbitrators, all lawyers, which must be made up equally. It is the technical admissibility committee that must ensure that the 12 constitutional bases agreed upon by the political forces are met throughout the process. The proposal for a new Constitution, therefore, cannot depart from certain principles, such as that Chile will continue to be a democratic Republic, a unitary and decentralized State, a social and democratic State of Law, with the same patriotic emblems as at present. According to these bases, the separation of the three powers of the State is reaffirmed and that the Legislature will have a bicameral character, made up of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. Along with recognizing indigenous peoples as part of the Chilean Nation – “one and indivisible” –, the subordination to civilian power of the Armed Forces and the Law Enforcement and Security Forces is underlined. The proposal that will be put to the vote must establish, among other issues, the autonomy of bodies such as the Central Bank, electoral justice, the Public Ministry and the Comptroller's Office, along with protecting fundamental rights and freedoms. The new text must incorporate that Chile must commit to caring for the environment.

This January, when Congress elects the 24 expert counsel and the admissibility committee of 14 lawyers, it will be crucial to the process. “I am afraid that some want to choose some friends from around there and not real experts,” former socialist president Ricardo Lagos said in an interview over the weekend. "If we fail in this second constitutional attempt, it will mean that we are in a very difficult situation," said the former president who ruled between 2000 and 2006 and who has played a key role in the Chilean constituent route.

One of the main challenges of the process – which the Government watches with great interest, but not from the leading role – will be to charm the citizenry. The constitutional issue is far from the concerns of the people, who since 2020 have had to face the covid-19 health crisis, the consequences of the war in Ukraine, inflation. According to a survey by the Centro de Estudios Públicos, CEP, released two weeks ago, crime, assaults and robberies are the first priority that the Government should address, according to Chilean society, ranking considerably above other needs such as health, pensions and education. In the same survey, 37% say that a new text will probably help solve the problems, while 30% think they would leave things the same.

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