March 17, 2020 / 7:19 PM / 23 days ago

Chile may postpone referendum on new constitution as coronavirus quells protests

SANTIAGO, March 17 (Reuters) - Chile may postpone a referendum on a new constitution scheduled for April 26 due to the coronavirus outbreak, Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel said on Tuesday.

The new consititution was a central demand of widespread social protests, but those have faded with the pandemic.

Blumel, who did not suggest a new date for the referendum, said the government’s main concern was the health of its citizens. A change to the referendum would need to be approved by two-thirds of congress.

“Our priority is also to ensure the referendum can be carried out in the best possible way,” he told reporters in Santiago. “If that means looking at alternatives, we will have to consider them.”

Protests since October have called for an end to social inequality and saw thousands killed, injured and arrested as well as millions of dollars´ worth of damage to business.

Chilean schools were suspended this week, borders closed and gatherings of more than 50 people banned as cases of coronavirus jumped into triple figures.

Fliers continued to circulate calling for demonstrations in the capital, but on Monday evening the protest hub of Plaza Italia in Santiago was quiet for the first time in five months.

Street hawkers who sold slingshots and tear gas remedies at the height of the unrest were instead offering face masks and homemade alcohol rubs.

On Monday, political party leaders from left and right met health authorities to discuss postponing the referendum.

Cristobal Bellolio, a Chilean academic and adviser to the campaign for a new constitution, said the mood had turned from one of defiance to fear, and few were now likely to oppose the referendum´s postponement.

“In the unrest people wanted to overthrow authority, in these kind of situations you expect the authorities to take control,” he said.

Camila Vallejo, a far-left lawmaker who spearheaded Chile’s 2011 student uprising, said a new referendum date should be set immediately.

She said Chileans should carry on the fight for equality by banging on pots and pans from home instead. “The issues will not go away but the means of protest have to be conducted responsibly,” she told Reuters. (Reporting by Aislinn Laing and Natalia Ramos; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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