The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chile braces for constitutional referendum in the wake of violent clashes

Churches were set alight on the evening of Oct. 18 as anti-government protests turned violent in Santiago, Chile. (Video: The Washington Post)

SANTIAGO — In the wake of mass protests that turned violent over the weekend, Chile is bracing for new turmoil in the run-up to this Sunday’s constitutional referendum, in which voters appear set to scrap the country’s dictatorship-era constitution.

Drafted in an undemocratic process and widely blamed for many of Chile’s social and political woes, the document has become a target of wide-scale anti-government protests that began rattling the country a year ago.

After new clashes Sunday, concerns are mounting that the process to replace the constitution, if approved, will not go far enough for some activists, and that Chile may be set for more waves of unrest — to cap off a year of compounding anger over inequality and an accumulation of power among elites.

As tens of thousands of people gathered in the Chilean capital of Santiago on Sunday, violent clashes between supporters of rival soccer clubs on the fringes of the Plaza Italia drew attention away from the majority who had congregated peacefully.

Farther down from the square, fires were lit at the base of a monument to the controversial Carabineros police force, as masked protesters hacked at the stone column with metal bars, and arsonists attacked two nearby churches.

Chilean officials vowed to press charges. “Those who carry out these acts of violence do not want Chileans to solve our problems through democratic means,” said Interior Minister Víctor Pérez Varela.

Clashes were also reported in other Chilean cities, and officials said they arrested some 600 people, around half of them in Santiago.

The Chilean government has faced accusations of tolerance for brutality in crackdowns over the past year.

More than 30 protesters were killed and thousands were injured in the months after pro-constitutional reform demonstrations began last October, amid an “excessive use of force” by authorities “and abuses in detention,” according to Human Rights Watch.

The first round of protests was triggered by a four-cent hike in subway fares but morphed into a broader manifestation of anger over inequality.

Chile’s constitution was drafted by the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet without popular input and ratified by a contested referendum in 1980.

The country saw a stunning economic rise after it transitioned to democracy three decades ago, with some economists describing its upward trajectory as the “miracle of Latin America” in the early 2000s. Critics argue that wealth, power and influence, however, remained overwhelmingly concentrated in a small, insulated elite, and that the constitution offered insufficient support for social welfare.

To speed up the country’s economic rise, the government largely privatized health care and education. Chile has become one of the most unequal countries of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members.

Overhauling the constitution could address some of the disparity, many protesters hope.

“We need to show that we still want to change this country,” Fabiana Carvajal, 26, a protester who says she will vote to scrap the current constitution, said during Sunday’s rally in Santiago. “We need to send the message that the system is unfair and tied to the Pinochet dictatorship — Chile needs a fresh start under a system that considers all of us."

Some detractors say that reforming rather than replacing the constitution would be preferable, while others have raised concerns over the feasibility of the process.

If the proposed rewrite is approved Sunday, members of an assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution would be elected in another vote in April. In 2022, a second referendum — with compulsory participation — would be held to accept or reject the document.

Turnout in the referendum Sunday could prove to be crucial “because it will determine the mandate that the constitutional process will have,” said Claudia Heiss, director of the political science department at the University of Chile.

If that process is successful, she added, Chile might “be able to close this chapter and move toward a more equitable, democratic future,” three decades after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Noack reported from Berlin.