Constitutional Process NATIONAL POLITICS

Opposition Between Ministers Increases Referendum Tension

SANTIAGO – The constitutional referendum coming up on Oct. 25 has divided Chilean authorities once again. President Sebastián Piñera asked government officials to refrain from expressing their positions on it. Members of his own cabinet, however, reject this request.

On Monday, Aug. 17, after meetings with members of his cabinet, President Sebastián Piñera decided to maintain neutrality for governmental members: he announced that ministers cannot participate in the constitution referendum campaigns, but that they are allowed to express their position to the public. Of course, the positions of 17 of his 24 cabinet members were already public knowledge prior to his announcement.

Since the first months of 2020, Piñera has repeatedly said the government should not take part in the campaigns in favor of “Apruebo” (approve)  or “Rechazo” (reject) and demanded his cabinet to remain neutral in order to avoid accusations of interventionism. Despite these statements, ministers and other authorities have openly rejected the president’s position. The disagreements have flared in recent weeks as the day for the historic vote, Oct. 25, approaches. 

“The government will maintain its posture of neutrality, but this does not imply that those of us who are part of the government cannot express our convictions,” said Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand in an interview with El Mercurio. The politician stated that those who have already made their position public have no need to hide it and reaffirmed his support for “Rechazo.”

Defense Minister Mario Desbordes, on the contrary, said he will not take part in any campaign or defend his position, which is known to be “Apruebo.” The former National Renewal president commented in several interviews that he would follow the instructions given by the president because they should be respected.

Supporting Desbordes, General Secretariat to the Presidency Cristián Monckeberg pointed out that being part of the government implies having to follow certain preventive measures, which are “necessary and prudent.” Monckeberg, who has expressed he will vote “Apruebo” on previous occasions, told La Tercera, “the function of governing requires a certain degree of neutrality in the face of an intense political debate that is going to take place.” The minister emphasized that this is necessary for an orderly and participatory referendum. 

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Despite the debate in response to Piñera’s instructions, most of his ministers have already said whether they will be voting “Apruebo” or “Rechazo.” There are 10 members of the cabinet known to be in favor of a new constitution, among them Finance Minister Ignacio Briones, Economy Minister Lucas Palacios, and Agriculture Minister Antonio Walker. 

Those who have said they will vote to reject the creation of a new constitution are Education Minister Raúl Figueroa, National Assets Minister Julio Ismait, Mining Minister Baldo Prokurica, and four others. As for the rest of the cabinet, two have said they are still undecided and five have not revealed their positions.

Date Change for the Referendum?

Sebastián Piñera has not mentioned a possible date change for the referendum, and, aside from his announcement to allow the ministers to express their positions to the public, he did not further comment on any of the cabinet members’ recent declarations. Whether he will declare his position on the referendum remains to be seen.

Regarding a possible date change, Víctor Pérez, Interior Minister, assured that the government would opt for a political agreement in case it was necessary. “That is the mechanism. There will not be an imposition, but a consensus,” said Pérez to Radio Bío Bío. He stated that it is the government’s job to make sure that the referendum is “as safe, transparent and participative as possible,” and that the government is bound to respect any decision about the way it will take place.

Regarding the president’s request for neutrality, Pérez argued that government authorities should be free to express their opinions regarding the referendum. The minister said that it would be “weird” and “not recommendable” for someone to abdicate his or her beliefs.

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