A man waits in line to cast his vote during a referendum to approve or reject a new Constitution at a polling station in Santiago

Chile votes to revise dictatorship-era constitution

A man queues up to cast his vote during a referendum to approve or reject the new constitution at a polling station in Santiago – Copyright AFP JAVIER TORRES

Paulina Abramovich, Paula BUSTAMANTE

On Sunday, Chileans voted in favor of a new constitution that would end the era of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, build a welfare society and strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples.

Although Chileans have previously voted en masse to rewrite the current constitution, adopted in 1980 during Pinochet’s rule, opinion polls show that the new text may be rejected.

Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (12:00 GMT), and long lines of voters gathered in parts of the country.

The social upheaval that began in 2019 prompted a constitutional review, but a draft of 388 articles, including proposals to legalize abortion, has proven controversial and often confusing.

“I will reject it because this constitution started badly,” Maria Angelica Ebnes, a 66-year-old housewife, told AFP in Santiago. “It was forced, through violence.”

In October 2019, protests erupted mainly in the capital, led by students initially outraged by the proposed increase in metro fares.

These demonstrations have escalated into wider dissatisfaction with the country’s neoliberal economic system, as well as rising inequality.

Supporters of the new text still harbor hope for victory.

“People will go to vote en masse and the polls will be wrong again,” said Juan Carlos Latorre, an MP from the ruling coalition of left-wing President Gabriel Boric, who supports the new text.

Boric called for national unity regardless of the outcome of the vote in Punta Arenas.

More than 15 million Chileans are eligible to vote in the mandatory referendum.

– Protect natural resources –

Among the main fears of opponents is the prominence given to the country’s indigenous peoples, who make up about 13 percent of the 19 million population.

Proposals to secure reproductive rights and protect the environment, as well as natural resources such as water, reportedly exploited by private mining companies, have also received a lot of attention.

The new constitution will also overhaul Chile’s government, replacing the Senate with a less powerful “chamber of regions” and requiring women to hold at least half of government positions.

While in recent polls the “refusenik” votes have led by as much as 10 percentage points, pollster Martha Lagos said the outcome is uncertain.

In the vast Santiago metropolitan area, most people are likely to vote in favor of the new constitution, Lagos said.

“There’s always the possibility that all the polls are wrong,” Lagos told AFP. “(But) I don’t think it’s more than five percent likely, and ‘deviation’ has a 95 percent chance of winning.”

A simple majority is required to pass a new constitution.

About 40 world-renowned economists and political scientists expressed their support for the new constitution.

However, some fear that the new text will cause instability and uncertainty, which could then hurt the economy.

“What you’re seeing is a certain conservatism in the Chilean electorate that we haven’t seen in years,” Lagos said.

It was definitely muted last December when millennial Boric was elected president.

– Social tension –

Supporters of the new constitution say it will bring about change in a conservative country marked by social and ethnic tensions and lay the foundation for a more egalitarian society.

They say the current constitution has given free rein to private enterprise in critical industries and created fertile ground for the rich to prosper and the poor to struggle.

Although the 1980 constitution has undergone several reforms since its adoption, it retains the stigma of having been adopted during a dictatorship.

Chileans have already voted once to rewrite the constitution and then again to elect representatives to do so, making Sunday’s vote the third time they’ve gone to the polls on the issue in just two years.

The new text was drafted by a constitutional assembly of 154 largely non-political members, equally divided between men and women, and with 17 seats reserved for indigenous peoples.

The resulting proposal recognizes 11 indigenous peoples and offers them greater autonomy, especially in judicial matters.

Some critics accuse the authors of trying to turn traditionally marginalized indigenous peoples into a higher class of citizens.

If passed, the Chilean Congress will begin to decide how to apply the new laws.

If the new text is rejected, the current constitution will remain in effect.

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