By DANIEL POLITI
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chileans voted in a plebiscite Sunday on whether to adopt a sweeping new constitution that would fundamentally change the South American country.
The proposed charter is intended to replace a constitution imposed by the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet 41 years ago.
For months, opinion polls have shown a clear advantage for the rejecting side, but the gap is narrowing, giving charter supporters hope they can pull off a victory.
“We are clearly in a situation where 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.”
The outcome will have a resounding impact on President Gabriel Boric, 36, who has been a key supporter of the new constitution. Analysts say voters also likely see the vote as a referendum on Chile’s youngest president, whose popularity has plummeted since taking office in March.
Italo Hernández, 50, said he supported the changes as he left the polling station at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile’s capital, on an unusually warm and sunny winter day. “We must leave behind Pinochet’s constitution which 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 avenues to achieve what people are asking for or what we need as a nation that is not just about changing the constitution,” said 42-year-old Mabel Castillo. “We all need to evolve. I know it’s an old constitution that needs changing, but not the way it’s done today.
Voting is compulsory in the plebiscite, which culminates a three-year process that began when the country once seen as a paragon of stability in the region exploded in student-led street protests in 2019. The unrest was sparked by an increase in the price of public transport. , but it quickly expanded to broader demands for greater equality and more social protections.
The following year, just under 80% of Chileans voted in favor of changing the country’s constitution which dates 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 outside the mainstream political establishment to draft the new constitution. It was the first in the world to be written by a convention divided equally between male and female delegates.
The composition of the convention is precisely why some people are excited to vote for the new document.
“It’s the first time that we all write a constitution, because before it only depended on small powerful groups,” Fernando Flores, 71, said after casting his vote. “We cannot continue to live this way.”
After months of work, the delegates produced a 178-page document with 388 articles which, among other things, emphasizes social issues and gender parity, enshrines the rights of the country’s indigenous population and places l environment and climate change at the center of a country which is the world’s largest producer of copper. It also introduces 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 judicial system in those regions, although lawmakers decide the scope of this decision.
In contrast, the current constitution is a market-friendly document that favors the private sector over the state in areas such as education, pensions and health care. It also makes no reference to the country’s indigenous population, which makes up nearly 13% of the country’s 19 million people.
“It’s a doorway to building a more just and democratic society,” said Elisa Loncon, an indigenous leader who served as the convention’s first president. “It’s not like Chile is waking up with all its political and economic problems automatically solved, but it’s a starting point.”
Hundreds of thousands of people packed a main avenue in the Chilean capital Thursday night at the closing rally of the pro-charter campaign, a turnout that supporters say shows a level of excitement that polls do not reflect.
“The polls weren’t able to capture the new voter, and more importantly, the young voter,” Loncon said.
Once the convention got to work, Chileans quickly began to get angry over the proposed document, with some worrying that it was too left-leaning.
“The constitution that has been drafted leans too far to one side and does not have the vision of all Chileans,” Roberto Briones, 41, said after the vote. “We all want a new constitution, but it needs to have a better structure.” Briones was particularly opposed to “different justice systems”, stating: “We are all Chileans, whether or not we have different origins”.
Proponents say opposition to the new document is due at least in part to a flood of widespread lies about its contents.
But Chileans also grew frustrated with convention delegates, who often made headlines for the wrong reasons: one lied about leukemia and another voted while taking a shower.
“An opportunity has been missed to build a new social pact in Chile,” said Senator Javier Macaya, leader of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party which is campaigning against the new constitution. “We are defending the option of rejecting (the document) so that we have another chance to do things better.”
Macaya insists that it is important that a new constitution be approved by a wide margin “by consensus and compromise”.
Although Chileans, including the country’s political leaders, largely agree that the dictatorship-era constitution should be rejected, it remains to be seen how that will be achieved if the current proposal is rejected.
“If it is rejected, what is institutionalized is the maintenance of Pinochet’s constitution – this constitution that no longer meets the needs of Chilean society,” Loncon said.