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LATIN AMERICA | 08-09-2022 01:50

Chile President Boric reshuffles Cabinet after referendum rout

Chile President Gabriel Boric fires interior minister and removes one of his chief advisers in a sweeping cabinet shake-up, tacking to the political centre after voters overwhelmingly rejected a new constitution that his government had backed in a referendum.

Chile's leftist President Gabriel Boric has reshuffled his cabinet after voters resoundingly rejecting a draft text o replace the country's dictatorship-era constitution.

Two days after the draft was voted down in a referendum, Boric changed his ministers of the interior, health, science, energy and the presidency, opting for individuals closer to the centre of the political left.

The new Interior Minister Carolina Toha, and minister of the presidency Ana Lya Uriarte both occupied top positions under former centre-left president Michelle Bachelet.

On Sunday, a first draft of a new constitution was rejected by nearly 62 percent of voters in a mandatory referendum that analysts say was also a report card on Boric's performance since taking office in March with promises of installing a "welfare state." He described the rejection Tuesday as perhaps "one of the most difficult moments politically that I have had to accept."

The president, painted by his detractors as a "communist," has said he would press ahead with efforts to replace the constitution, which dates from the time of military dictator Augusto Pinochet. The cabinet reshuffle, he added, was intended to give "greater cohesion" to the government.

Sunday's "No" vote – by a far larger margin than projected by pollsters – was the latest in a wave of recent political and social showdowns in the country. It started with protests in 2019 for a fairer, more equal society, which led to a referendum in 2020 in which 80 percent voted for replacing the constitution.

Voters elected a left-leaning convention last year to do the drafting work, and in December, Boric took office after beating a right-wing rival by campaigning against Chile's neoliberal economic model – protected by the existing constitution.

The Pinochet-era constitution is widely blamed for making companies and the elite richer at the expense of the poor, working classes.

Among the proposals that proved most controversial, the replacement text would have entrenched the right to elective abortion and guaranteed stronger protections for indigenous rights.

While most Chileans have said they want a new constitution, this version proved too radical for a majority.

When he took office six months ago, Boric appointed a cabinet noteworthy for having an average age of 42 and being composed of 14 women and 10 men. With Tuesday's changes, the number of female ministers rose to 15.

Among the ministers replaced were Izkia Siches (interior), Boric's close ally Giorgio Jackson (presidency) and Begona Yarza at health – who have all come in for criticism for their handling of the government agenda.

Boric's announcement came as hundreds of students protesting for more educational resources clashed with police outside the government palace.

"And it will fall... and it will fall, the Constitution of Pinochet," changed the students, unhappy with the rejection of the draft text that would have guaranteed "universal access to education."

Police used tear gas and water canon to disperse the protesters.

 

Quest still on

Boric is holding talks with political leaders on how to revive the constitution rewriting process. On Monday, he vowed to press ahead with efforts to replace the document.

“I’m sure all this effort won’t have been in vain, because this is how countries advance best, learning from experience and, when necessary, turning back on their tracks to find a new route forward,” the president said.

The social movement behind the new constitution has convinced parties across the political spectrum that change is needed – if not the one proposed in this charter. According to analysts, most Chileans and political parties want a new constitution.

One exception is far-right politician José Antonio Kast – Boric's vanquished rival in December elections – who is against a constitutional change.

"The right is split among the more moderate sectors, which have committed to changes and reforms... and the most extreme sectors, which I believe are not ready for that change," said analyst Cecilia Osorio of the University of Chile.

“The two positions have moved toward the centre,” said Kenneth Bunker, political analyst at Santiago-based consulting firm Politico Tech Global. Now, “we are no longer talking about approving or rejecting the proposed constitution, but on how to reform the current charter. There is a growing political centre that is likely to reach a solution after the vote.”

Colombia's President Gustavo Petro, an ally of Boric, tweeted after the rejection on Monday that: "Pinochet is alive in some political sectors of the Americas."

The European Union for its part, said it took "note of the commitment expressed by President Boric and across the political spectrum on the need to pursue the constitutional process."

 

– TIMES/AFP/BLOOMBERG

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