Chile fires starting gun on new constitution

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced on Tuesday the beginning of a process that could lead to a new constitution for the South American country, one of the centre-left leader's key electoral pledges. A "civic education" phase would run until March 2016, which would be followed by "a process of dialogue with citizens in which everyone can take part," said Bachelet in a televised speech to the nation on Tuesday evening. Chile's constitution dates from the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Although significant tweaks have been made since the return to democracy, Bachelet and others have argued that it needs to be redesigned from the ground up. "We are starting the process that will allow us to have a new constitution...because the current constitution had its origins in dictatorship and does not reflect the needs of our times," said the president, who began her second non-consecutive term in March 2014. A busy legislative agenda of education, labour and other reforms had led some to speculate that Bachelet would delay on delivering on her promise of a new constitution, especially as polls indicate that it is not a top concern for many people. As it is, the final parts of the approval process will fall to the next government, which will not be led by Bachelet, because current Chilean rules bar leaders from serving consecutive terms. The Congress elected in 2017 will decide whether it will be up to lawmakers to write the new constitution, or whether and to what degree other Chileans will be involved. The final draft will be put to a referendum, said Bachelet. (Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Ken Wills)