SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans voted in a plebiscite Sunday on adopting a far-reaching new constitution that would fundamentally change the South American country.
The proposed charter is intended to replace a constitution imposed by General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship 41 years ago.
For months, opinion polls have shown a clear lead for the rejection camp, but the gap has been narrowing, giving letter supporters hope that they can pull off a victory.
“We are clearly in a situation where the result will be close,” said Marta Lagos, director of MORI, a local pollster. “The Chilean is a political animal who decides at the last minute.”
The result will have a resounding impact on President Gabriel Boric, 36, who has been one of the main promoters of the new constitution. Analysts say voters are also likely to see the vote as a referendum on Chile’s youngest-ever president, whose popularity has plummeted since he took office in March.
Italo Hernández, 50, said he had endorsed the changes as he left the polling station at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile’s capital, on an unusually warm and sunny winter’s day. “We have to leave behind the Pinochet constitution that only favored people with money.”
Hernández said it was “very symbolic and very emotional” to vote in a stadium that had been used as a place of detention and torture during the military dictatorship.
Others, however, remain deeply skeptical of the proposed charter.
“There are other ways and other paths to achieve what the people are asking for or what we need as a nation that is not simply changing the constitution,” said Mabel Castillo, 42. “We all need to evolve. I know it’s an old constitution that needs to be changed, but not in the way it’s being done today.”
Voting is mandatory in the plebiscite, capping a three-year process that began when the country, once seen as a model of stability in the region, erupted in student-led street protests in 2019. The unrest was sparked by a rise in public transport prices. , but quickly expanded into broader demands for greater equality and more social protections.
The following year, just under 80% of Chileans voted to change the country’s constitution dating from the country’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet.
Then, in 2021, they elected delegates to a constitutional convention. Amid the anti-establishment fervor of the time, Chileans largely chose people from outside the traditional political establishment to write the new constitution. It was the first in the world to be written by a convention divided equally between male and female delegates.
The makeup of the convention is precisely why some people are excited to vote for the new document.
“This is the first time that we all make a constitution, because before it only depended on small powerful groups,” said Fernando Flores, 71, after casting his vote. “We can’t keep living this way.”
After months of work, the delegates produced a 178-page document with 388 articles that, among other things, focuses on social issues and gender parity, enshrines the rights of the country’s indigenous population and puts the environment and climate change at center stage. a country that is the main producer of copper in the world. It also introduces the rights to free education, health care and housing.
The new constitution would characterize Chile as a plurinational state, establish autonomous indigenous territories and recognize a parallel justice system in those areas, although legislators would decide how far it would go.
In contrast, the current constitution is a market-friendly document that favors the private sector over the state in things like education, pensions, and health care. Nor does it refer to the country’s indigenous population, which represents almost 13% of the country’s 19 million inhabitants.
“This is a door to build a fairer, more democratic society,” said Elisa Loncón, an indigenous leader who was the first president of the convention. “It is not that Chile wakes up with all its political and economic problems automatically resolved, but it is a starting point.”
Hundreds of thousands of people took to a main avenue in Chile’s capital on Thursday night for the closing rally of the pro-charter campaign, a turnout that advocates say shows a level of enthusiasm polls do not reflect.
“The polls have not been able to capture the new voter and especially the young voter,” said Loncón.
Once the convention got to work, Chileans quickly grew sour on the proposed document, with some worrying that it was too far off.
“The constitution that has been drafted now leans too far to one side and does not have the vision of all Chileans,” said Roberto Briones, 41, after voting. “We all want a new constitution, but it needs to have a better structure.” Briones was particularly opposed to “different justice systems”, saying: “We are all Chileans, regardless of whether we have different origins.”
Supporters say opposition to the new document is due, at least in part, to an avalanche of falsehoods spread about its content.
But Chileans were also frustrated with the convention’s delegates, who often made headlines for the wrong reasons: a song about having leukemia and another that he voted while taking a shower.
“An opportunity to build a new social pact in Chile was lost,” said Senator Javier Macaya, leader of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party that is campaigning against the new constitution. “We are defending the option of rejecting (the document) to have a new opportunity to do things better.”
Macaya insists that it is important that a new constitution win approval by a wide margin “through consensus and compromise.”
Although Chileans, including the country’s political leaders, largely agree that the dictatorship-era constitution should be scrapped, it remains to be seen how that will be achieved if the current proposal is rejected.
“If it is rejected, what is institutionalized is maintaining the Pinochet constitution, that constitution that no longer responds to the needs of Chilean society,” said Loncón.