Chilean lawmakers have voted to postpone a much-anticipated referendum on a new constitution as safety concerns around the coronavirus outbreak take precedence over politics.
The vote on rewriting the country’s Pinochet-era constitution was originally due to take place on 26 April – a date that the country’s health ministry now predicts will be the height of the virus outbreak in the country.
Chile currently has 324 confirmed cases – the highest number per capita in South America.
Lawmakers have provisionally set the new referendum date for 26 October, yet the move still requires formal approval by a two-thirds vote of congress.
“This sends the message that the health of Chileans is our priority,” said Álvaro Elizalde, president of the opposition socialist party following the announcement. “We’re confronting a crisis that requires we act responsibly.”
A new constitution was a central demand that emerged from protests over inequality last October. The mass demonstrations saw more than 30 killed and thousands injured, as well as billions of dollars’ worth of damage and losses to business.
Coronavirus, however, has quickly upended political priorities in Chile.
President Sebastián Piñera announced a 90-day “state of catastrophe” to confront the growing outbreak in Chile, which came into effect on Thursday. The move gives the government extraordinary powers to restrict freedom of movement and assure food supply and basic services. The military is permitted to intervene and uphold order when necessary.
Hours later, council workers moved in to remove protest art and sculptures from Santiago’s main square, Plaza Italia, which had been a key staging ground for demonstrations but was gradually abandoned this week as protesters began to comply with quarantine measures.
The cleanup operation has provoked outrage.
“A significant amount of people might interpret this as a provocation. It is irresponsible – it could even motivate protesters to go back to the plaza,” said Nico Silva, a social anthropologist who had regularly attended the protests.