SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans voted in a plebiscite Sunday on whether to adopt a far-reaching new constitution that would fundamentally change the South American country.
Proposed charter replaces a Constitution imposed 41 years ago by General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
For months, opinion polls have shown a clear advantage for the rejection camp, but the difference has been narrowing, giving hope to the charter’s supporters that they can pull out a victory.
“We are clearly in a situation in which the result will be close,” said Marta Lagos, head of MORI, a local pollster. “The Chilean is a political animal who decides at the last minute.”
It will be a significant impact on President Gabriel Boric (36) who is one of the principal proponents and supporters of the constitution. Analysts say voters also likely view the vote as a referendum on Chile’s youngest-ever president, whose popularity has plunged since taking office in March.
Fifty-year-old Italo Hernández said he had backed the changes as he exited the polling station in the National Stadium in Chile’s capital of Santiago on an unusually hot and sunny winter day. “We have to leave behind Pinochet’s constitution that only favored people with money.”
Hernández said it was “very symbolic and very emotional” to be voting at a stadium that had been used as a detention and torture site during the military dictatorship.
Others remain, however, skeptical of the proposal charter.
“There are other ways and other paths to achieve what people are asking for or what we need as a nation that isn’t simply to change the constitution,” Mabel Castillo, 42, said. “We all need to evolve. I know it’s an ancient constitution that needs changes, but not in the way that is being done today.”
In the plebiscite voting is compulsory. The vote marks the culmination of three years-long process. Unrest began with a rise in the cost of public transport, but quickly grew into wider demands for more equality and social protections.
The following year, just under 80% of Chileans voted in favor of changing the country’s constitution that dates from the country’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet.
In 2021 they elected delegate to the Constitutional Convention. The new constitution was drafted by Chileans, who largely decided to choose people from outside of the established political system. This was the first world constitution to have been written using a conclave that included both male and female delegate.
People are eager to vote on the new convention because it has the right makeup.
“This is the first time we all write a constitution, because before it was only up to small, powerful groups,” Fernando Flores, 71, said after casting his ballot. “We can’t keep living this way.”
After months of work, delegates came up with a 178-page document with 388 articles that, among other things, puts a focus on social issues and gender parity, enshrines rights for the country’s Indigenous population and puts the environment and climate change center stage in a country that is the world’s top copper producer. The document also provides rights to housing, education and health care.
Chile would be branded a plural state under the new constitution. The Constitution would also recognize autonomous Indigenous territories. A parallel justice system would be recognized in these areas. But, that decision would depend on how far out lawmakers go.
Contrary to this, the constitution of the present is market-friendly. It favors private industry over government in many areas, including education, healthcare, and pensions. It also makes no reference to the country’s Indigenous population, which makes up almost 13% of the country’s 19 million people.
“This is a door to build a more just, more democratic society,” said Elisa Loncon, an Indigenous leader who was the first president of the convention. “It isn’t as if Chile will wake up with all its political and economic problems automatically resolved, but it’s a starting point.”
Hundreds of thousands of people took over a main avenue in Chile’s capital Thursday night at the closing rally of the pro-charter campaign, a turnout that proponents say shows a level of excitement the polls do not reflect.
“Polls have not been able to capture the new voter, and above all, the young voter,” Loncon said.
Chileans soon began to discredit the draft document after the convention had been put into effect. Others were concerned that it might be too complicated.
“The constitution that was written now leans too far to one side and does not have the vision of all Chileans,” 41-year-old Roberto Briones said after voting. “We all want a new constitution, but it needs to have a better structure.” Briones was particularly opposed to the “different systems of justice,” saying, “We’re all Chileans, regardless of whether we have different origins.”
According to supporters, opposition to the document was due in no small part to falsehoods about its content.
Chileans became frustrated with the convention delegates who made headlines often for wrong reasons. For example, one lied about his leukemia. Another cast a ballot while in the shower.
“An opportunity was missed to build a new social pact in Chile,” said Sen. Javier Macaya, head of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party that is campaigning against the new constitution. “We are defending the option to reject (the document) so we have a new chance to do things better.”
Macaya insists it is important for a new constitution to win approval by a broad margin “through consensus and compromise.”
Although Chileans, including the country’s political leadership, largely agree the dictatorship-era constitution needs to be tossed out, how that will be achieved if the current proposal is rejected remains to be seen.
“If it’s rejected, what is institutionalized is maintaining Pinochet’s constitution — that constitution that no longer answers the needs of Chilean society,” Loncon said.
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