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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chile’s voters reject a new, conservative constitution

Torn posters with messages supporting the new proposed constitution in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 14, 2023. Chileans voted against a new constitution on Sunday that would have pulled the South American nation to the right. The process began with protests from the left. (Cristobal Olivares/The New York Times)

By Jack Nicas

Chileans on Sunday rejected a new constitution that would have pulled the country to the right, likely ending a turbulent four-year process to replace their national charter with little to show for it.

Nearly 56% of voters rejected the proposed text, with all of the votes counted.

It is the second time in 16 months that Chile, a South American nation of 19 million, has rebuffed a proposed constitution — the other was written by the left — showing how deeply divided the nation remains over a set of rules and principles to govern it even after four years of debate.

That debate began in 2019 after enormous protests prompted a national referendum in which 4 out of 5 Chileans voted to scrap their constitution, a heavily amended version of the 1980 text adopted under the bloody military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

But now, after failing to agree on a new text, the nation will muddle along with the constitution that so many had voted to replace.

“I want to be clear: During my term, the constitutional process is closed,” President Gabriel Boric, a leftist who stayed out of the process, said in an address Sunday night. “The country became polarized and divided, and despite this conclusive result, the constitutional process failed to channel the hopes of achieving a new constitution written for all.”

That makes the outcome of Sunday’s vote a bitter one. A process that had once been hailed as a paragon of democratic participation now serves instead as an example of how difficult democracy truly is, particularly in the internet age.

“This could have been a possibility for people to believe again in politics, in politicians — and that has not happened,” Michelle Bachelet, a leftist former president of Chile, said in an interview before the vote. “Nobody will try to do a third version of this process.”

Chileans twice elected mostly political outsiders — doctors, engineers, lawyers, farmers, social workers and others — to constitutional assemblies to draft proposed charters. But those bodies ended up creating long, complicated constitutions that were each in the partisan mold of the political side that controlled the assembly.

The left-leaning assembly last year offered a constitution that would have expanded abortion rights; given Indigenous groups more sovereignty; and enshrined a record number of rights, including to housing, internet access, clean air and care “from birth to death.” After 62% of ballots rejected that text, voters elected conservatives to control a new constitutional assembly. That group came up with a proposal that would have given the private sector a prominent role in areas like health, education and social security.

Each proposal engendered fierce opposition, and voters were overwhelmed with complex and often contradictory information about how the texts would change the country. Misinformation flew from both sides.

Gladys Flores, 40, a street vendor, said Sunday that she was voting against the conservative proposal “because all of our rights will be taken away” and “our pensions will be lower.” While the proposed text would have cemented Chile’s current pension system, which has been criticized for meager payouts, it was unlikely to actually reduce pension payments or significantly take away rights.

The conversation over the proposed constitutions often devolved into debates over politics rather than policy. Leading up to Sunday’s vote, for instance, Chile’s surging far-right Republic Party, which had helped write the proposal, focused its pitch not on the text’s merits, but on the idea that voting for it would punish Boric, who has become deeply unpopular as crime rises.

Felipe Agüero, a political scientist who has studied Chile’s transition to democracy from the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1973 to 1990, said that the constitutional process was fraught because replacing the dictatorship-era charter had been put off for so long. That has made both the left and the right eager to capitalize on the rare chance to significantly sway the country’s future, he said.

“They decided that we have to use this opportunity to turn things around in a big way — that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” he said. As a result, he said, “there was no interest in reaching a broader consensus.”

Chileans’ rejection of the two proposed constitutions is highly unusual historically. The votes represent just the 12th and 13th times that a nation has rejected a full constitutional referendum in 181 such votes since 1789, according to research by American political scientists Zachary Elkins and Alex Hudson.

Besides offering a pro-market approach to governing, the proposed constitution defeated Sunday also included some conservative language on social issues. The part that attracted the most attention was a one-word change to the current constitution’s language on “the right to life” that many Chileans worried would be used to challenge a law allowing for abortion in some circumstances. The left also worried that the text would have led to laws that enabled businesses to invoke religious beliefs to decline serving certain customers, such as gay couples and transgender people.

The first constitutional assembly, which was controlled by the left, garnered intense interest last year, with its sessions broadcast live. But after its proposal was defeated, the public appeared to grow disillusioned with the process and media coverage decreased.

“This time people are a lot more detached from the process,” said María Cristina Escudero, a political scientist at the University of Chile.

She said there would almost certainly not be a third attempt at a new constitution, at least for some time. “There is no popular will for it, no social movement from the people to do this again,” she said. “People are tired.”

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