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Chile - National Plebiscite - 25 October 2020

Chile moved to postpone the 26 April 2020 constitutional referendum amid coronavirus crisis. The vote set for 26 April was likely to be held in October, while government exploits ‘state of catastrophe’ to clear protesters. Chile’s political parties came to an agreement on postponing the April 26 plebiscite amid health concerns, with October 25 as the tentative date.

Chile is a constitutional multiparty democracy. In November 2017 the country held presidential elections and concurrent legislative elections, which observers considered free and fair. Former president (2010-14) and center-right candidate Sebastian Pinera won the presidential election and took office in March. The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The Mapuche minority, which represents approximately 9 percent of the population, have historically been underrepresented in government. In November 2017 two candidates from the Mapuche indigenous group were elected to congress–one to the current 43-seat Senate and one to the 155-seat Chamber of Deputies.

In November 2019, Chile said it will stage a referendum to replace the country's dictatorship-era constitution in 2020, conceding to a key demand of protesters after nearly a month of violent civil unrest. The current charter, in force since 1980 and enacted by the military government of Augusto Pinochet, has been amended numerous times in the years since. However, it does not establish the state's responsibility to provide education and healthcare, two demands made by the millions of Chileans who had taken to the streets.

The referendum would ask voters whether the constitution should be replaced and if so, how a new charter should be drafted, Senate President Jaime Quintana said. It would propose three different models for a body to devise a new constitution, made up of either fully elected representatives, political appointees or an equal mix of both.

If elections to the body were needed, they would be held in October 2020 to coincide with regional and municipal ballots.

The unrest that began on 18 October 2019 with protests against a rise in rush-hour metro fares mushroomed into a broader outcry against the status quo, with burning, looting and daily confrontations between demonstrators and police.

The crisis is Chile's biggest since its return to democracy in 1990, leaving 20 dead - five at the hands of state forces - and more than 1,000 injured. Security forces had been accused of torturing protesters, with a public prosecutor announcing his intent to investigate 14 police officers over abuse claims. Protesters cite low wages, high costs for education and healthcare and a yawning gap between rich and poor in a country dominated politically and economically by a few elite families. Demonstrators demanded greater social reform from the government led by Pinera, who has announced several measures in a bid to appease the public mood.

After weeks of sometimes violent demonstrations, most polls show the protest movement is supported by 75 percent of Chileans. A slightly larger number - 87 percent, according to a survey by pollster Cadem published this month - say they favour the protesters' demand for constitutional reforms.

A few days after Pinera became president last year, his government announced it would not allow the consideration of a bill to amend the constitution that his socialist predecessor Michelle Bachelet had submitted to Congress. By early 2020, President Pinera's approval rating was at 12 percent and his disapproval rating is at 83 percent.

Thousands of protesters and bystanders have been hospitalised for injuries sustained during crackdowns on protests by the Carabineros police force. The National Human Rights Institute, a public entity, has documented 445 cases of eye injuries, mostly from police buckshot projectiles, 197 cases of sexual violence by authorities, and 520 cases of torture or other cruel treatment.

The campaign period for and against a new constitution in Chile officially began on 26 February 2020, two months before the country's scheduled plebiscite. Election officials said that 2,915 public spaces throughout the country were designated for plebiscite campaign materials, now permitted under strict conditions. This also kicked off the period for radio and print advertisements, while regulated television airtime is set to begin on March 27.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2020 18:53:00 ZULU