Referendum in Chile: voters consider a new egalitarian constitution

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SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans voted Sunday on a left-wing draft constitution that would radically transform a country once seen as a model of a free market for the region, with results expected late in the evening.

The poll asked voters to approve or reject replacing the 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 sea change for the South American nation, expanding the role of government and outlining an economic model designed to reduce inequality and uplift the poor.

The document, drafted through a democratic process, was born out of an attempt to unify a country in crisis. In 2019, the streets of Chile erupted in protest, fueled by workers and middle classes struggling with high prices and low wages. In a society long seen as a symbol of prosperity in the region, thousands of Chileans have expressed their anger at a government they believe has forgotten them.

The politicians negotiated what they saw as a way to quell the unrest: they pledged to draft a new constitution, replacing the version drafted under the brutal military rule of General Augusto Pinochet. The following year, Chileans voted overwhelmingly 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 draft constitution.

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

The 388-article document came under heavy criticism for being too long, too leftist and too radical in its economic, legal and political proposals. Like other closely watched referendums around the world – from the Colombian peace accord to Brexit – the debate has been marred by misinformation, misinformation and confusion over the interpretation of such an exhaustive document.

Yet many of the concerns centered on the central question 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 are going to be even more divided than we are now.”

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

The vote was also a referendum on the country’s young president, Gabriel Boric, 36, Chile’s most leftist leader since Salvador Allende, who killed himself in the 1973 military coup that toppled his government socialist. Last year, Boric promised voters that “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.”

But the success of his ambitious plans hinged in part on the success of the project Constitution. And the young leader suffered a slump in approval ratings, amid escalating violence and rising inflation.

If the proposal fails, the 1980 charter will stand and Boric and his country will have to start over. To write a new charter, constitutional experts say, Chileans will likely have to take the issue to its congress, launch a new election for a new assembly, and start the drafting process all over again.

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

“This is a historic moment, which I think is very important for all of us to be, regardless of our choice, deeply proud of,” Boric said. “In the difficult times that we have gone through as a country, we have chosen as a path, as a means of resolving our differences, a step towards more democracy and never less.”

Chile’s Audacious Experiment: A Divided Country Votes for a New Constitution

The The proposal would enshrine certain civil rights that have never been included in a constitution, emphasizing many of the priorities of left-wing social movements led by young Chileans: gender equality, environmental protection, Indigenous and LGBTQ rights and legal access to abortion.

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

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

“Today is a day full of hope for Chile,” she said. “What’s at stake is a constitution for a much more democratic and much more equal country.”

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

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

The convention has also been plagued with controversies that have helped fuel a campaign to discredit it. A prominent delegate was elected to the assembly on the promise of free, high-quality health care, citing his own experiences with leukemia. But he quit after news broke that he was pretending to be sick.

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

“This constitution was written by elected officials, ordinary, ordinary people. It gives it enormous value,” said Mario Opazo, a 59-year-old who voted in favor of the proposal in central Santiago on Sunday. “It might have some imperfections, but most of it was built 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 drafting a new constitution. “But I thought they would write a western constitution,” the 66-year-old said. He described the proposed version as “indigenous” and “in the style of Venezuela”.

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

For Bárbara Sepúlveda, Sunday’s ballot was a vote for a document she helped draft. Whatever happens, the 37-year-old left-wing constitutional delegate said: “I can’t help but feel like I’m part of a breakthrough, 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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