Indigenous woman chosen as president of Chile’s new Constitutional Assembly

Published : July 05, 2021 18:20 IST

Elisa Loncon, ahead of the Chilean National Congress for the first Constituent Assembly session in Santiago, on July 4, 2021. Photo: Javier Torres / AFP

The inauguration of the architects of Chile's post-dictatorship constitution was interrupted by clashes between police and protesters.

Chile's new Constitutional Assembly on Sunday chose a woman from the country's majority indigenous Mapuche people to lead the process of creating a new constitution. Elisa Loncon received 96 of 155 votes in the second round to secure an absolute majority.

"I want to thank everyone for voting for a Mapuche and a woman to change the history of this country," the 58-year-old scientist said. She addressed delegates in the Mapuche people's language Mapudungun and in Spanish. The Constitutional Assembly aspires to take some power from the elites and distribute it more equitably throughout society.

Protests interrupt the swearing in of the assembly

The swearing-in of the assembly was delayed for hours amid clashes between protesters and security forces near the location of the ceremony. Some protesters tried to overrun barricades outside the former Congress building in the capital Santiago, where the ceremony was held. Security forces responded with tear gas and water canons.

The session, which opened with the national anthem, was interrupted by the sound of protesters' whistles and shouts of "No more repression!" Election official Carmen Gloria Valladares responded by temporarily suspending the meeting. "We want to have a celebration of democracy, not a problem," she said. Some assembly members called for the "repressive" police to be removed and joined protesters. Some 5,000 protesters also gathered in the Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the deadly protests that rocked Chile in October 2019 and paved the way for the drafting of a new constitution.

Who is working on the new constitution?

The 155-member Constitutional Convention includes lawyers, teachers, a housewife, scientists, social workers and journalists. Half are women, and 17 represent indigenous communities. Many of the members, who were elected in May, are left-leaning independents with no experience in public office.

What is next?

No single group in the convention holds veto power, making compromise and concessions unavoidable. The delegates have nine months, with a possibility of a three-month extension, to complete their task. They have vowed to address an array of issues, including water and property rights, central bank independence and labor practices. All citizens are required to vote on the ratification of the resulting document. The referendum is expected in 2022, and if the draft produced by the assembly is rejected, the old constitution will remain in force.

What about the old constitution?

Chile's constitution was written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. Although it was amended in the 30 years of Chilean democracy, it remained widely unpopular. Chileans viewed the document as the basis of social friction in the country, which is ranked as one of the most unequal among advanced economies. An overwhelming majority of Chileans voted in a referendum last year to draft a new constitution.