Chilean lawmakers approve popular vote on Pinochet-era constitution

By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile's Congress on Thursday gave the green light to a referendum on changing the country's constitution next year, a central demand of protesters whose mobilizations brought the nation virtually to a standstill over the past eight weeks.

The plan was approved in the lower house on Wednesday and by senators on Thursday, though an opposition request for quotas to ensure the participation of women, indigenous people and non-political representatives in the body that could draw up a new charter was shelved after pushback from right wing groups.

Chile's constitution dates back to General Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 military dictatorship. Critics of the constitution say it fails to guarantee proper healthcare, education and citizen participation in government, while supporters consider it a pillar of stability for one of the region's strongest and most investor-friendly economies.

In April voters will be asked whether they approve the idea of a new constitution and whether the body that draws up the new document should be a popularly elected assembly or one mixed with current lawmakers.

A poll by Cadem last month suggested that 82% of Chileans believe the country needs a new constitution and 60% want it drawn up by a popularly elected assembly, compared to 35% who want a mix with politicians.

Senator Alvaro Elizalde, president of Chile's Socialist Party, said his members would work to convince Chileans of the need for a new constitution drawn up by a popularly picked body.

"That way, we will have for the first time in our history a constitution drawn up in a time of democracy through popular participation," he told journalists after the vote.

Socialist Senator Isabel Allende, daughter of former President Salvador Allende, said she would lodge a reform motion to include quotas for women and indigenous people in any body drawing up a new charter.

"We believe that if there is a crisis in this country it's as a result of the lack of representation, it's not good enough. People want to participate and be listened to," she said.


(Reporting by Natalia Ramos; Writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Richard Chang)