Chile referendum: Voters consider a new, egalitarian constitution

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SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans on Sunday voted on a proposed leftist constitution that would dramatically transform a country once seen as a free-market model for the region, with results expected late in the evening.

The ballot asked voters to approve or reject replacing the country’s 1980 dictatorship-era constitution — considered one of the most business-friendly in the world — with one of the most egalitarian and inclusive constitutions in the world.

The proposed constitution would be a stark shift for the South American nation, expanding the role of government and outlining an economic model designed to narrow inequalities and lift up the poor.

The document, drafted through a democratic process, originated as an attempt to unify a country in crisis. In 2019, Chile’s streets erupted in protest, powered by working and middle-class people struggling with high prices and low wages. In a society long held up as a symbol of prosperity in the region, thousands of Chileans poured out their anger at a government they felt had forgotten them.

Politicians negotiated what they saw as a way to ease the unrest: They pledged to write a new constitution, replacing the version written under the brutal military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The following year, Chileans overwhelmingly voted in favor of drafting a new charter.

But instead of uniting the nation, the process ended up dividing it once again. Polls last month showed a plurality of voters opposed to the proposed constitution.

Chileans voted Sept. 4 on a progressive new constitution that would dramatically transform a country once seen as a free-market model. (Video: Reuters)

The 388-article document faced intense criticism that it was too long, too left-leaning, and too radical in its economic, judicial and political proposals. Like other closely watched referendums around the world — from Colombia’s peace deal to Brexit — the debate was marred by misinformation, disinformation and confusion over the interpretation of such an exhaustive document.

Yet many of the concerns centered on a core issue of national identity. The proposal described Chile as a “plurinational” country made up of autonomous Indigenous nations and communities.

“It divides Chile, and Chile is one nation,” said María Yefe, a 65-year-old housekeeper who voted to reject the constitution in the capital of Santiago on Sunday. “We’re going to be even more divided than we are now.”

At the same polling place, 42-year-old María Barros, a mother of two, captured the feelings of many across the country: “Chileans agree we need to change the constitution,” she said. “But not like this.”

The vote was also a referendum on the country’s young president, 36-year-old Gabriel Boric, Chile’s most left-leaning leader since Salvador Allende, who died by suicide during the 1973 military coup that toppled his socialist government. Boric famously pledged to voters last year that “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.”

But the success of his ambitious plans relied in part on the success of the proposed constitution. And the young leader has suffered a plunge in approval ratings, amid escalating violence and rising inflation.

If the proposal fails, the 1980 charter will stand, and Boric and his country will be left to start from scratch. To write a new charter, constitutional experts say, Chileans will probably have to bring the matter to its congress, launch a new election for a new assembly, and begin the drafting process anew.

After voting on Sunday from his hometown of Punta Arenas, a city near the southern tip of Chile’s Patagonia region, Boric was asked by reporters if, in the case of a vote against the proposed constitution, he would call for a political agreement to start a rewrite. The president pledged to “convene a broad national unity … and move forward with this process.”

“This is a historic moment, for which I think it’s very important that we should all, independent of our choice, feel profoundly proud,” Boric said. “In the difficult moments we went through as a country, we chose as a path, as a way to resolve our differences, an advance in more democracy and never in less.”

Chile’s bold experiment: A divided country votes on a new constitution

The proposal would enshrine certain civil rights that have never before been included in a constitution, emphasizing many of the priorities of the leftist social movements led by younger Chileans: Gender equality, environmental protections, Indigenous and LGBTQ rights, and legal access to abortion.

It would guarantee access to high-quality education, health care and water. It would grant rights to nature and animals and require the government to address the effects of climate change. It is thought to be the first constitution that would require gender parity across government and public and public-private companies.

For Nel González, a 36-year-old woman voting in the center of the city, the proposal held out the possibility of a new kind of government that prioritizes the social rights of its people.

“Today is a very hopeful day for Chile,” she said. “At stake is a constitution for a country that is much more democratic, and much more equal.”

It was written by an unusual elected assembly that drew participants and political newcomers from across the country who had rarely felt represented in national politics. The 155-member constitutional assembly was composed equally of men and women, and 17 seats were reserved for the country’s 10 Indigenous communities.

But it was made up of mostly independent and left-leaning members, and faced criticism from those who felt the assembly neglected to incorporate the views of conservatives.

The convention was also plagued by controversies that helped fuel a campaign to discredit it. One prominent delegate was elected to the assembly on promises of free, high-quality health care, citing his own experiences suffering from leukemia. But he resigned after news broke that he was faking his illness.

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Still, the convention marked the first time a group of democratically elected people sat down — in a transparent and open process — to draft a constitution for the country.

“This constitution was written by elected people, regular and common people. That gives it tremendous value,” said Mario Opazo, a 59-year-old who voted in favor of the proposal in the center of Santiago on Sunday. “It might have some imperfections, but the bulk of it was constructed with the wishes and by the people of this country.”

Alberto Lyon, a lawyer who voted in the affluent neighborhood of Las Condes, said he voted in favor of writing a new constitution. “But I thought they would write a constitution that was Western,” the 66-year-old said. He described the proposed version as “indigenist” and “in the style of Venezuela.”

“It’s a disaster,” Lyon said. “It changes the entire political system.”

For Bárbara Sepúlveda, Sunday’s ballot was a vote for a document she helped write. Whatever happens, the 37-year-old leftist constitutional delegate said, “I can’t help but feel like I am part of an advancement, of a triumph.”

“In a country where it seemed like nothing could change,” she said, “we now see that anything is possible.”

John Bartlett contributed to this report.

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