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August 26, 2020

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CHILE: Covid-19 and the constitutional referendum

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 3 mins)

The official campaign period for the 25 October constitutional referendum gets underway from today, 26 August. The referendum, which was postponed from April due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is the result of a hastily-reached cross-party agreement last November amid the most serious outbreak of public unrest since the return to democracy in 1990. The protests and unrest were triggered by a fare increase on the Santiago metro but very quickly morphed into an outpouring of frustration over impediments to social mobility and welfare; inequality of opportunity; and elite sectors’ perceived abuse of the social compact.

In the referendum, voters will be asked 1) whether they are in favor of a new constitution and 2) what method they would prefer to go about the process. There will be two options available on the latter question: 1) a constitutional convention specially elected for the purpose of writing the new constitution or 2) a mixed convention of elected members, 50% of them from Congress and 50% from the populace. The results are in little doubt. Support for a new constitution remains steady at around 70%. There is also majority support for a 100% elected constituent assembly.

However, there has been a vigorous debate in recent weeks about whether to proceed with the referendum amid the Covid-19 outbreak, and if so, how to minimize health risks; ensure the fear of Covid-19 does not unduly effect turnout; and still allow those diagnosed with Covid-19 to vote. The issue is highly sensitive because a second postponement would risk being interpreted as the government backtracking on its commitment to hold the referendum. The pandemic has kept protests largely in check but they would likely flare up if the vote is postponed again. In this context, it now appears that only a dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases in the run-up to the vote would trigger another delay, which would need to have cross-party support.

How to reassure voters that the referendum can take place safely has therefore become the priority. According to the latest Cadem poll, 69% of voters say they will definitely vote in October, down from 90% pre-lockdown. Participation is critically important for the legitimacy of the entire constitutional exercise, which is supposed to lay down a legal model of political, social, and economic organization for the next 30-40 years. Turnout in recent elections has been notably low (46.6% in the first-round of the 2017 presidential vote and legislative elections; 34.8% in the 2016 municipal vote), a problem that health concerns could exacerbate, particularly if the older demographic – the most active voters but also most vulnerable to Covid-19 – stay at home on 25 October.

Despite some procrastination (which applies to the entire organization of the vote), the government has been moving towards issuing a recommendation that Covid-19 sufferers stay away from polling centers since there is not enough time to organize a secure postal ballot system or mobile voting units. While the total number of Covid-19 cases on 25 August breached 400,000 since Chile’s first reported case, the reality is that active confirmed cases number 15,564. The government hopes the number will decrease to 10,000 by the referendum. Increasingly, President Sebastian Pinera sees a safe, well-managed referendum with solid turnout as something he can rescue from his troubled second presidency.

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