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Chileans have rejected a new, progressive constitution

Opponents of the new constitution cheer in the streets of Santiago, Chile, on Sunday night after results showed voters rejected a proposed new constitution.
Matias Basualdo
Opponents of the new constitution cheer in the streets of Santiago, Chile, on Sunday night after results showed voters rejected a proposed new constitution.

Updated September 5, 2022 at 9:56 AM ET

Chile spent the past two years writing a progressive new constitution, but the document was so soundly spurned by voters on Sunday that the result was clear less than two hours after the polls closed.

Nearly 62% of Chileans rejected the draft Magna Carta that was designed to replace the current one written during the country's military dictatorship while just 38% voted to accept it, according to official returns.

Although nearly every public opinion survey suggested the draft constitution was in trouble, Sunday's results were shockingly lopsided and a huge blow for President Gabriel Boric, a leftist elected last year largely on his pledge to shepherd through passage of a new constitution.

"As president I receive this message with a lot of humility," Boric, who is 36 and is Latin America's youngest president, said in a TV address Sunday night. "You have to listen to the voice of the people."

News that the "rejection" vote had prevailed sparked celebrations in Santiago, the capital, where lines of drivers honked their car horns and people gathered outside to chant and toast victory.

"We're happy because, really, we all want a new constitution, but one that is done right and this one didn't fulfill the expectations of the majority," Lorena Cornejo, 34, told the Associated Press, as she waved a Chilean flag. "Now we have to work for a new one that unites us. This one didn't represent us and that was clear in the vote."

The proposed constitution was considered too liberal for a conservative country

In a traditionally conservative country — married couples couldn't get divorced in Chile until 2004 — many voters considered the new constitution too liberal. It was written by an elected special assembly dominated by leftists and progressives while only about one-third of the 155 delegates were conservatives.

The text called for legalized abortion, gender parity in government offices, the abolition of Chile's senate and the establishment of autonomous Indigenous territories. It included vast new protections for the environment that, according to critics, could have put the brakes on the country's lucrative copper mining industry. It also called for universal health care and the right to decent housing, education and pensions, which would have required steep tax increases.

People line up to vote in a plebiscite on a new draft of the Constitution in Santiago, Chile, Sunday.
Matias Basualdo / AP
People line up to vote on a proposed new constitution in Santiago on Sunday.

"We don't have the financial capacity to pay for all of these things," said Mitzi Rojas, an architect in Santiago who voted against the constitution.

The effort to remake Chile's governing guidelines stems from a deep political crisis. For decades the country was viewed as an economic powerhouse and a Latin American success story. But frustration over inequality and the high cost of health care, education and public transportation sparked violent protests in 2019 that nearly brought down Chile's right-wing government.

To address protesters' concerns and convince them to call off their demonstrations, Boric — who was then an opposition congressman — helped cut a deal to begin the long, complicated process of writing a new constitution.

A new constitution is considered long overdue

The current one was written in 1980 under dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile for 17 years and calls for private sector involvement in education, pensions and health care. Democracy was restored in 1990. But even though most nations that undergo momentous political transformations write new constitutions to reflect these new realities, Chile never got around to it.

"The original sin of the current constitution is that it was written during the dictatorship," said Rodrigo Espinoza, a political science professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago. "It has gone through reforms but is still seen as illegitimate."

In a 2020 referendum nearly 80% of Chileans voted to draft a new one.

However, experts say the best constitutions are usually short and to the point. By contrast, the document produced by Chile's special assembly was a confusing collection of 388 articles, said Claudio Fuentes, a Santiago political analyst. Another problem, he said, was a vast disinformation campaign that spread lies — including claims that under the new constitution the government would disarm the police and confiscate people's homes.

Boric acknowledged these problems in his TV address but he also vowed to lead a new constitutional rewrite process.

"I commit to put my all my energies into building a new constitutional process alongside congress and civil society," said Boric, who plans to meet with the heads of political parties and both houses of congress on Monday.

Boric added that whoever drafts the next version — whether its Congress or a special assembly — they will have to produce a constitution that unites Chileans rather than divides them.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.