Referendum in Chile: voters firmly reject a brand new, egalitarian structure

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SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans on Sunday squarely rejected a new left-wing constitution aimed at transforming the country into a more egalitarian society.

In a referendum, Chilean voters were asked to approve or reject a proposal to replace the country’s 1980 dictatorship-era constitution – considered one of the most pro-market in the world – with one of the most comprehensive in the world.

The new charter saw a dramatic shift to the left in the South American nation, expanding the role of government and calling for an economic model that would reduce inequalities and help the poor.

But for many Chileans, the proposed changes were too drastic. With more than 95 percent of the ballot boxes being counted Sunday night, about 62 percent of voters opposed the charter while 38 percent approved, according to the Chilean Elections Authority.

The result of the vote ended an ambitious democratic experiment that began as an attempt to unite a country in crisis. In 2019, protests erupted on Chile’s streets, fueled by working- and middle-class people struggling with high prices and low wages. In a society long considered a symbol of prosperity in the region, thousands of Chileans vented their anger at a government they felt they had forgotten.

Politicians negotiated a solution to ease the unrest: they promised to write a new constitution to replace the version written under the brutal military regime of General Augusto Pinochet. The following year, Chileans voted overwhelmingly to draft a new charter.

But instead of uniting the nation, the process ended up dividing it again.

The clear defeat dealt a painful blow to the country’s young left-wing president, Gabriel Boric, Chile’s most left-leaning leader since Salvador Allende, who committed suicide during the 1973 military coup that toppled his socialist government.

Boric, a 36-year-old former MP who helped negotiate the deal to draft the constitution, promised voters last year that “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” But the failure of the proposed constitution will make it more difficult for the president to implement his bold agenda.

Now he and his country have to start from scratch, as it turned out on Sunday evening. To write a new charter, constitutional experts say, Chileans will likely have to take the matter to Congress, call for new elections for a new assembly, and begin the drafting process again.

A do-over was exactly the result many Chileans had been hoping for. At a Santiago hotel on Sunday night, a group of anti-charter parties celebrated by waving Chilean flags in the air and chanting, “Chile is and will be a country in freedom!”

Chileans voted on September 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 was heavily criticized for being too long, too left-leaning and too radical in its economic, legal and political proposals. As with other closely watched referendums around the world – from the Colombian peace deal to Brexit – the debate was marred by misinformation, disinformation and confusion over the interpretation of such an exhaustive document.

However, 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 Santiago on Sunday. “We will be even more divided than we are now.”

In the same polling station, 42-year-old María Barros, mother of two, met the sentiments of many across the country: “Chileans agree that we must change the constitution,” she said. “But not like this.”

After Sunday’s vote in his hometown of Punta Arenas, a town near the southern tip of Chile’s Patagonia region, Boric was asked by reporters if he voted against the proposed constitution and wanted a political settlement to begin a rewrite. The president pledged to “convene broad national unity… and move that process forward.”

“This is a historic moment for which I think it is very important that we are all deeply proud, regardless of our choice,” Boric said. “In the difficult moments we have been through as a country, we have chosen a progression toward more democracy, never less, as a way to resolve our differences.”

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

The proposal would have enshrined certain civil rights never before included in a constitution and would have emphasized many of the priorities of left-wing social movements led by younger Chileans: gender equality, environmental protection, indigenous and LGBTQ rights, and legal access to abortion.

Access to quality education, healthcare and water would be guaranteed. It would have given rights to nature and animals and required the government to address the effects of climate change. It was believed to have been the first constitution that would have called for gender equality between governments and public and public-private corporations.

For Nel González, a 36-year-old woman voting in the center of the city, the proposal opened up the possibility of a new type 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 much more democratic and much more equal country.”

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

But composed of mostly independent and left-leaning members, it drew criticism from those who felt the assembly had failed to incorporate Conservative views.

The convention was also plagued by controversy, which helped fuel a campaign to discredit it. A prominent delegate was elected to the convention on the promise of free, quality health care and cited his own experience with leukemia. But he resigned after it was revealed he was faking his illness.

Chile writes a bright constitution. Are the Chileans ready for this?

However, the convention was the first time that a group of democratically elected people came together – in a transparent and open process – to draft a constitution for the country.

“This constitution was written by elected people, common people and ordinary people. That gives it tremendous value,” said Mario Opazo, a 59-year-old who voted in favor of the proposal in central Santiago on Sunday. “It may have some imperfections, but most of it was built with the will and by the people of this country.”

Alberto Lyon, a lawyer who voted in the affluent Las Condes neighborhood, said he voted to draft a new constitution. “But I thought they were going to write a western constitution,” said the 66-year-old. He described the proposed version as “indigenous” and “Venezuelan-style.”

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

For Bárbara Sepúlveda, Sunday’s vote was a vote for a document that she helped draft. Despite his defeat, the 37-year-old left-wing constitutional commissioner said: “I can’t help but feel part of a progress, 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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