Analysis: Chile's bid to replace Pinochet-era constitution at risk of failure

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SANTIAGO, April 6 (Reuters) - Javier Alonso, a Chilean telecoms worker, voted in 2020 in favor of a landmark plan to replace the country's constitution that dates from the era of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Now his support is wavering.

Opinion polls this week showed for the first time that more Chileans would reject the new text than approve it, as it looks increasingly possible that it will fail in a national yes-no vote planned for September. read more

That would be a blow for its architects and supporters – including progressive new President Gabriel Boric – who hope it will underpin major economic and social reforms.

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Many critics have argued that the current 1980 text is illegitimate due to its dictatorship origins that they say give right-wing parties an unfair boost and underpin deep economic inequality.

A referendum two years ago to replace the constitution won huge support after months of violent protests in 2019 against inequality, and an assembly was chosen to draft the new text.

But political squabbling within the assembly and a raft of proposals on areas from pensions to reforming Congress that are more radical than many Chileans had bet on has thrown the future of the new constitution into doubt.

"I haven't decided if I'm going to vote to reject or approve it," said Alonso - a sharp shift from 2020, when he volunteered as an election observer for the approve camp in the referendum.

He criticized the assembly representatives for making "wild proposals for five minutes of fame on Twitter," which he said was harming people's faith in the process.

"I'm starting to lose trust that something good is going to come out of this," he said.

If the new text is rejected then the Pinochet-era version would remain in place, a major setback for the 36-year-old Boric, who took office last month pledging a social and economic overhaul.

"This government is very associated with the idea of building a new cycle that starts with a constitution that replaces Pinochet's one," said Cristobal Bellolio, a professor of political theory.

"If the (no vote) wins, it would be a political earthquake."

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CALLS FOR CHANGE

The 154-member assembly is divided into commissions, each one in charge of drafting a different part of the new constitution on areas such as environment, justice and the political system.

Proposals require a simple majority to pass from commissions to face a vote in the full assembly, where a two-thirds majority is needed to be included in the draft constitution. Rejected proposals can be amended before facing a second vote.

The assembly is dominated by independents and leftists whose proposals have included the right to reproductive rights, including abortion, self-governance for indigenous territories, and making combating climate change a state duty.

While those strike a chord with a rising progressive movement they have sparked opposition from conservatives and moderates.

"People called for changes to pensions, public transport costs, the right to healthcare, but what we are seeing is a convention that's distanced itself from people's expectations," said Francisco Zambrano, a constitutional lawyer in Santiago.

Pamela Figueroa, a political analyst at the University of Santiago, said the assembly had also struggled to communicate effectively with voters, while opponents to the redraft have campaigned aggressively on social media.

Some proposals have already failed dramatically. The commission in charge of designing the political framework saw 93 of its 96 proposals voted down by the assembly in March, including a proposal for a unicameral congress.

"The disagreements are linked to different solutions or ways we can see to get out of an institutional crisis," said Barbara Sepulveda, a lawyer from Chile's communist party who is involved in the redraft.

Sepulveda supported abolishing the Senate, saying it held up change, but conservative representatives pushed back, arguing the upper house was an important check on government power. The commission has now proposed keeping the Senate in a weakened form.

The environmental commission - dominated by self-proclaimed "eco-constituents" - waved through its proposals, but only one out of 40 was approved by the assembly in the first vote.

The commission will vote on more measures this week, including ones related to nationalizing water and mining, a major topic of debate in the world's no. 1 copper producer.

Juan Jose Martin, 25, who coordinates the environmental commission, said it had learned from its mistakes and was now reaching across the political aisle.

"What we're doing now is a consensus model," Martin said. "Whatever has 100% percent support, or 99%... that's what goes in."

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Reporting by Alexander Villegas and Natalia Ramos; Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien

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