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Chile's President Bachelet's New Constitution Plans Face Obstacles

Most Chileans support replacing the old constitution of the Pinochet dictatorship, but Bachelet's proposals are not supported by the political opposition and public trust in all politicians is almost non-existent.
Imagen por Luis Hidalgo/AP

President Michelle Bachelet has put Chile en route to drawing up a new constitution to replace the one imposed by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, but the road ahead is far from smooth.

"The current constitution comes from a dictatorship and it does not respond to the needs of our time or favour democracy," Bachelet said in an address to the nation on Tuesday.  "The moment has come to change it."


Bachelet said that the first stage will be a period of "civic education" aimed at informing Chileans about the process after which she said there would be public consultations "where everybody can participate."  The president said this would lead to the legislature choosing between four options in 2017 that would define who should be responsible for deciding the proposed new constitution's content.

The options are: a bicameral commission of senators and deputies, a mixed commission made up of citizens and legislators, an elected constituent assembly, and a plebiscite in which the electorate would be asked to decide which of the first three options it prefers.

The current constitution has been reformed multiple times since Chile's transition to democracy in 1990 but, according to an opinion poll from April this year, 77 percent of Chileans support the idea of a completely new document.

"A minority imposed it and, since it was born without legitimacy, Chileans have not accepted it as their own," Bachelet said in her speech.

Bachelet's announcement of the roadmap towards a new constitution was welcomed within her own Socialist Party.

Former radical student leader turned congressional deputy Camila Vallejo immediately expressed support for the option of a constituent assembly. Veteran Senator Isabel Allende said she preferred the idea of a plebiscite giving the population the chance to decide what mechanism they prefer.


The political opposition, however, accused Bachelet of seeking to divert attention away from her historically low approval rates, which dropped to 22 percent in August, and warned that drawing up a new constitution could unsettle the country.

"The recurring issue about legitimacy rooted in the constitution's undemocratic origin is not enough," senator Hernán Larraín told a local news channel. "Writing a new constitution would generate institutional instability that would be very harmful." Larraín is the president of the Independent Democratic Union Party whose founder was among the designers of the 1980s constitution.

Related: The Soldiers Who Set Two Chilean Protesters on Fire in 1986 Will Finally Face Charges

Political analyst Kenneth Bunker told VICE News that the constitutional project was too big a challenge for Bachelet to successfully tackle in the current political climate.

"It would be better for Bachelet to leave this task for the next government," he said. "She has too much on her plate now, and she does not have the support to do it by herself."

Bachelet's popularity problems are associated with a slew of corruption scandals involving most political parties, businessmen and the president's son.

Attorney General Sabas Chahuán decided in February to personally lead the investigations into corruption and has subsequently put several important politicians in pre-trial detention.


The scandals have also helped ensure that trust in all Chile's political parties is even lower than President Bachelet's approval ratings, scraping just 3 percent in a poll carried out in August this year.

President Bachelet created the Anti-Corruption Presidential Advisory Council last March in an effort to show she was taking the scandals seriously. One month later the council presented proposals to change the way political parties are funded and guard against corruption, but these have faced opposition in Congress.

Álvaro Castañón, a member of the Council, told VICE News that it would be a mistake to draw up a new constitution before the new regulations are in place.

"The legitimacy of our current Congress is at rock bottom," he said.  "A reform [of the political party regulations] is needed to tackle the crisis of confidence in order for the process of creating a new constitution to be carried out well."

Related: Chile's Bachelet 'Redirects Attention' From Corruption Scandals With Call For a New Constitution

Follow Nicolas Rios on Twitter: @nicorios