Chileans categorically reject a new, progressive constitution

The World
Chile's President Gabriel Boric speaks during a ceremony introducing new cabinet members, at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile

For the past three years, millions of Chileans have been calling for major social and political change. They’ve wanted reforms on health care, women’s rights, Indigenous rights, education and environmental issues.

That vision finally took shape in a new draft of the country’s constitution — the first in the world to be written by a convention with gender parity. 

But when it was put to the test on Sunday in a referendum, the proposal was rejected by 62% of voters.

The new constitution would have brought big changes to the country by replacing a document from 1980 that was written under the military dictatorship of then-President Augusto Pinochet. The new draft was meant to recognize the rights of women, Indigenous peoples and the LGBTQ community, and would have prioritized the protection of the country’s natural resources.

Back in 2020, nearly 80% of Chileans who participated in a plebiscite said they weren’t happy with the Pinochet-era constitution.

So, why did voters reject this new proposal?

Claudia Heiss, a professor of political science at the University of Chile, said one reason could be that voting in this referendum was mandatory — unlike other elections in the country.

Although turnout was very high, with people lining up at polling stations, Heiss said that many people were not happy that they were being forced to vote. And the mandate drew in a new demographic of voters.

“These new voters were people probably less informed about politics, less interested and also more prone to [believing] misinformation and fake news.”

Claudia Heiss, professor of political science at the University of Chile

“These new voters were people probably less informed about politics, less interested and also more prone to [believing] misinformation and fake news,” she said

Heiss said the new constitution was perceived by many to be too radical, taking into consideration that Chile is one of the most conservative countries in Latin America.

“That perception was influenced by the way the conversation took place, where the political right was in a minority and their views were practically not included there. So, the tone of the debate was not always a tone of dialogue, of respecting the political opponents. And I think that diminished the credibility and the legitimacy of the convention.”

Heiss said that the COVID-19 pandemic and high inflation might also have played a role, shifting people’s priorities to more conservative ones.

“People are more concerned about their safety, their immediate economic security, rather than political reform,” she said.

Chile's president, Gabriel Boric, a big proponent of adopting the proposed document, addressed the nation on Monday. He said he was still committed to starting the process from scratch and to coming up with another draft constitution. 

“We face a historic challenge,” Boric said. “This decision demands that our leaders work with more determination, more dialogue and more respect to reach a new proposal that unites us as a country.” 

On Tuesday, Boric changed the leadership of five ministries in what marked the first Cabinet shake-up since he took office in March.

Some conservative leaders had refused to meet with the president to begin discussing a new constitutional process until there was change in his government.

“I’m making this decision thinking about our country,” Boric said. “It’s painful, but necessary.”

But for many Chileans, the process of change doesn’t end with this week’s referendum.

Pablo Abufom, a political activist with a group called Solidaridad, said he was disappointed in Sunday’s results. 

It means we are still stuck with the same system of laws imposed by a brutal dictatorship in 1980,” he said. “And it's a setback for the process of change that started in 2019.”

He said that the social and political crises that paved the way for this constitutional process is still there, and that close to 5 million Chileans voted in favor of the new proposal.

“That’s a strong enough base to continue a process of change,” he added.

Related: Chileans have long struggled with a water crisis. Management practices are partly to blame, study says.

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