The proposed constitution would be a stark transformation for the South American nation, expanding the role of government and outlining an economic model designed to narrow inequalities and raise the level of the poor.
The document, which was drafted through a democratic process, arose as an attempt to unite a country in crisis. In 2019, the streets of Chile erupted in protest, buoyed by middle-class people and workers suffering from high prices and low wages. In a society that has long been seen as a symbol of the region’s prosperity, thousands of Chileans have expressed 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, to replace the one written under General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military regime. The following year, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favor of drafting a new charter.
But instead of uniting the nation, the process ended by dividing it again. Opinion polls last month showed a large number of voters opposed to the proposed constitution.
The 388-article document faced heavy criticism for being too long, too left-leaning, and too extreme in its economic, judicial and political proposals. Like other closely watched polls around the world – from Colombia peace agreement To Brexit – the debate has been marred by misinformation, disinformation and confusion about the interpretation of such a comprehensive document.
However, many concerns centered on a core issue of national identity. The proposal described Chile as a “plurinational” state made up of self-governing indigenous peoples and communities.
“It’s dividing Chile, and Chile is one country,” said Maria Yvi, a 65-year-old housekeeper who voted to reject the constitution in the capital, Santiago, on Sunday. “We will be more divided than we are now.”
At the same polling place, 42-year-old mother of two Maria Barros captured the emotions 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 Borek, 36, Chile’s most left-leaning leader since Salvador Allende, who committed suicide during the 1973 military coup that toppled his socialist government. Borek pledged to voters last year that “if Chile is the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.”
But the success of his ambitious plans depended in part on the success of the proposal constitution. The young leader suffered a drop in approval ratings, amid escalating violence and rising inflation.
If the proposal fails, the 1980 charter will stand, and Borek and his country will be left to start from scratch. In order to draft a new charter, constitutional experts say, Chileans will likely have to bring the matter up to Congress, trigger new elections for a new assembly, and start the drafting process all over again.
After voting on Sunday from his hometown of Punta Arenas, a city near the southern tip of Chile’s Patagonia region, reporters asked Borek if, in the event of a vote against the proposed constitution, he would call for a political agreement to begin a rewriting. The president pledged to “hold broad national unity… and move forward with this process.”
“This is a historic moment, and I think it is very important that we all, regardless of our choice, feel deeply proud,” Borek said. “In the difficult moments that we have been through as a country, we have chosen a path, as a means of resolving our differences, of progress towards more democracy rather than less.”
The The proposal would enshrine some civil rights not previously included in the constitution, focusing on many of the priorities of left-wing social movements led by young Chileans: gender equality, environmental protection, indigenous and LGBT rights, and legal access to abortion.
It will ensure 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 believed to be the first constitution to require gender parity across government and public and private corporations.
For Neil Gonzalez, a 36-year-old woman who votes downtown, the proposal raised the possibility of forming a new type of government that prioritizes the social rights of its people.
“Today is a day of hope for Chile,” she said. “At stake is the constitution of a much more democratic and egalitarian country.”
It was written by an extraordinary elected assembly that attracted participants and new political entrants from all over the country who rarely felt represented in national politics. The 155-member Constitutional Assembly is composed equally of men and women, and 17 seats are reserved for the country’s 10 indigenous communities.
But it was composed mostly of independent and left-leaning members, and faced criticism from those who felt the assembly neglected to include conservative views.
The agreement was also plagued by controversies that helped fuel a smear campaign. A prominent delegate to the association was elected on promises of free, high-quality health care, citing his own experiences suffering from leukemia. But he resigned after news of his illness was falsified.
However, the agreement marked the first time that a group of democratically elected people had sat down – in a transparent and open process – to draft a constitution for the country.
This constitution was written by elected people, ordinary and common people. “It gives it tremendous value,” said Mario Obazzo, 59, who voted for the proposal in central Santiago on Sunday. “It may have some flaws, but the greater part of it was built by the desires and people of this country.”
Alberto Leon, the lawyer who voted in the upscale neighborhood of Las Condes, said he voted in favor of writing 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 “original” and “Venezuela-style”.
“It’s a disaster,” Leon said. “It changes the entire political system.”
For Barbara Sepúlveda, Sunday’s vote was a vote on a document she helped write. Whatever happens, the 37-year-old Constitutional Left delegate said, “I can’t help but feel that I am part of a progress and a victory.”
“In a country where it seems that nothing can be changed, we now see that anything is possible,” she said.
John Bartlett contributed to this report.