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Fearing the People...
by Newropeans-Magazine
2011-09-09 07:13:17
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These two words are essentially synonymous, and refer to a popular vote outside the normal electoral process, on one or more specific issues of importance. It has and is used in many countries. In fact, in some, like in Australia, it is mandatory to hold it and take part in it for any constitutional reform.

Apart from various Latin American countries, Western democracies such as France and Switzerland have used it regularly. In California, specific matters tend to be “piggy-backed” on top of other electoral processes but they are basically the same exercise.

Why hold such a vote in a parliamentary democracy where the legislative power normally deals with law-making decisions? There could be many reasons, ranging from the importance of the question being asked, the fact that it is a new element which was not part of the electoral platform when the parliament was initially elected, or because the said parliament is not fully representative due to the electoral system or a high abstention rate.

Admittedly, the procedure can have its flaws, or even traps. A famous case is that organised by France’s General de Gaulle in relation with the independence struggle for Algeria. The question voters were asked was (I am paraphrasing) :”Do you want peace in Algeria, and are you prepared to give the government full powers to achieve it”. Disguised as one question, it is in fact two questions. Of course, few people would answer that they did not want peace in Algeria, but by voting for that you also gave an almost dictatorial carte blanche to the government.

In Chile, the current 1980 Constitution, which was itself approved by referendum, only recognises one instance where a plebiscite is possible. Article 128 says that if a constitutional reform properly voted by congress is rejected wholly or partly by the president, then it is possible to hold a plebiscite to settle the difference.

As readers would know, we currrently have a major upheaval in Chile, basically about Education but deep down about the model of society that the country needs and wants. Opposition voices have called for a plebiscite in this respect.


When I die and go to Hell, if Lucifer allows me, I will take in my luggage the collected sayings of Chilean politicians, businessmen, journalists and columnists on various matters. Never in the history of mankind has such a collection of rubbish been uttered and written, all with a straight face, mixing ignorance with bigotry, and a total disregard for facts and debate. Chileans cannot debate. Their TV “debate” programmes are monologues, their “round tables” at conferences are in fact square (and I am not referring to geometry). They keep calling for “dialogue” on this and that, but even before they sit down, whether with Bolivia, the students or whomever, declare the main issue as “non-negotiable”.

The call for a plebiscite on educational reform has brought stupid remarks to a new paroxysm. When I wrote recently that the UDI may save the government, I was very wrong. There is no salvation with this kind of attitude. I have to add that all the stupidity did not come from the Right.

Among the objections raised to having a plebiscite (on any issue), is the fact that it is “populist”. That word has become pejorative, (like “liberal” in the USA or “intellectual” in Britain), whereas all it means is taking note of what the people want. If Abe Lincoln had been a Chilean politician, he would most certainly have “disappeared” during the Pinochet years.

The fate of “populism” reminds me of that befallen to the word “orientalism”, which is the study of Middle Eastern cultures. The late Edouard Said wrote a famous book criticising the fact that Western scholars had given a wrong view of the place, making the word almost an insult. I myself was called that at the only conference about the ill-fated Arab Spring I was invited to participate in (doubly wrong as over nearly 3 centuries my family worked and lived in 9 different Arab countries, and contrary to the Arabs in Chile, I actually speak the language- other universities preferred to invite Vittorio Corbo). With all respect to Said’s memory, he was also wrong. Though several centuries of Ottoman rule stifled many things in the Arab world, I do not think anyone prevented the Arabs fromvisiting libraries and looking into their own culture if they wanted to, and if they could not publish their views at home, could have emigrated to other countries and done so. Thanks to distinguished German, British and French scholars, we have eminent works on the region, even if they sometimes were not infallible, such as in the case of the first translations of Omar Khayyam from Persian. In fact, it is not until the coming to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt during the early 1950’s that the Arabs started having pride in themselves.

Back to the Chilean plebiscite. It is also being accused of “damaging institutionality” and “anti-democratic”. Minister Longueira said yesterday that it was “the road for demagogues and caudillos”, citing the fact that Cuba and Venezuela held plebiscites. He conveniently forgot about Hitler, who organised several in the 1930’s on his way to absolute power. Newly appointed senator Ena von Baer (Madame feu au croupion) did not remain behind :”countries who use plebiscites lose their democratic status “ (sic). I am sorry to hear that Switzerland, France and California are dictatorships (by the way, I did not hear any of their embassies in Santiago issuing a note of protest at this insult). One is at a loss to understand how asking the people’s direct opinion is a destruction of democracy, but if you want Cartesian logic, you stay away from Latin America.

By the way, in its original Greek, “democracy” means “people power”. Here is another Greek word : “Kolotripa”.


A few days ago, I received two successive messages asking me to take part in a counter-protest movement next Monday 22, against the current student movements. You are supposed to express your opposition by wearing a white ribbon in a visible part of your body (no, a piece of toilet paper sticking out of your Kolotripa will not do). Some cultured Chilean film buffs could not miss the analogy to the Michael Haneke film “The White Ribbon”, which describes the emergence of facsism in a German village early in the XXth century.

Back to the messages. The first one was full of spelling and syntax mistakes, (such as “bandalismo”) which proves that Chile’s educational problems are not limited to the public school system. The other one was linguistically correct, but the contents were asinine.

It started by bringing out the old legend of a “minority” movement, only because 16 million Chileans were not all in the streets. Never mind that opinion polls show that the protests have a backing of 75 to 80 % at national nevel, and even the extreme Right-wing Universidad del Desarrollo admitted to 55 % in its own poll.

It went on to say that there were other ways to express discontent (which? Through an effete congress, or public medias which are one-sided?). You cannot leave such decisions to a congress with a crooked electoral system, for which most young people are not even registered to vote, and whose elected members have cosy relationships with all sorts of outside pressure groups.

It gets better. The message described “good Chileans” as those who paid their bills and debts (such as whom? Carlos Hurtados’ nephew Fernando Hurtado Lambert, who stole U$ 20,000 from me soon after I arrived in Chile, related to the Zaldivars, protected then by several senior officers and UDI parliamentarians). Ask the top schools and universities about the months of unpaid fees they have to bear f rom parents who drive in SUVs to collect their children.

Oh yes, the students occupying schools and universities are also guilty of drinking and taking drugs, according to the message. We all know of course that there is no alcoholism or use of illegal substances in the upper classes. Those barely adolescent girls totally drunk outside Reñaca discos in the summer nights are probably the children of the maids that have come to help out their employers enjoy their holidays to the full. The zillions filling the cafés of Providencia during the Happy Hour are construction workers shaking off the dust from building Horst Paulmann’s imitations of Albert Speer buildings.

The best argument against the proletariat in the message was the accusation that they had too many children. This was drafted in a strange way, saying that “we” (the “good” Chileans) only have the children we want. This first of all means that they use Contraception (have you consulted your parish priest before writing that?). As for the rest having too many children, the accusation coming from the sectors which have opposed proper sex education in schools, the morning after pill, and even therapeutic abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, is nothing but outrageous.

In case nobody else remembers, in my paper on a security policy, I did hint that sooner or later someone will call for military intervention to quell the protests. In fact, it happened sooner, through the mouth of Santiago mayor Zalaquett.

Though it was denounced and rejected (the military did not, as they cannot, react publicly, but I am sure most were furious). Nevertheless, president Piñera added fuel to the fire a few days later by hinting that the protests were akin to 1973 (and we all know how that ended). Meanwhile, documented cases of unprovoked police violence continue, together with “dirty tricks” squads of unknown origins carrying out actions to discredit the students


After all this, I am going to appear to destroy my own argument by saying that a plebiscite for educational reform is not really on. It is not because I am against plebiscites, or God forbid, about listening to the people, but such exercises are only valid when they seek an answer to a single defined issue such as Do you accept presidential re-election? Do you want to privatise state companies? Etc.. It cannot be used to answer some nebulous many-sided complex issue.


Armen Kouyoumdjian
Country Risk Strategist
Valparaiso, Chile

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