Chileans on Sunday rejected a new constitution that would push the country to the right, likely ending a turbulent four-year process to replace their national charter with few results.
Nearly 56% of voters rejected the proposed text, after all votes were counted.
It is the second time in 16 months that Chile, the South American nation of 19 million, has rejected a proposed constitution – the other was written by the left – demonstrating how deeply divided the nation still is over a set of rules and principles to govern it. even after four years of debate.
The debate began in 2019, after huge protests led to a national referendum in which four out of five Chileans voted to abolish their constitution, a heavily amended version of the 1980 text adopted under the bloody military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
But now, after failing to reach agreement on a new text, the nation will confuse the constitution that so many had voted to replace.
“I want to be clear: during my mandate, the constitutional process is closed,” President Gabriel Boric, a leftist who remained out of the process, said in a speech Sunday evening. “The country has become polarized and divided and, despite this conclusive result, the constitutional process has failed to channel the hopes of obtaining a new constitution written for everyone.”
This makes the result of Sunday’s vote bitter. A process that was once hailed as an example of democratic participation now it serves instead as an example of how difficult democracy truly is, particularly in the Internet age.
“This could have been an opportunity for people to believe in politics, in politicians again – and that didn’t happen,” Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s left-wing former president, said in an interview before the vote. “No one is going to try to do a third version of this process.”
Chileans have twice elected mostly political outsiders – doctors, engineers, lawyers, farmers, social workers and others – into constitutional assemblies to draft charter proposals. But these bodies ended up creating long and complicated constitutions, each based on the partisan model of the political party that controlled the assembly.
Last year, the left-wing assembly proposed a constitution that would expand the right to abortion, give indigenous groups greater sovereignty and enshrine a record number of rights, including housing, Internet access, clean air and care “from birth to death”.
After 62% of votes rejected that text, voters elected conservatives to control a new constitutional assembly. That group put forward a proposal that would give the private sector a leading role in areas such as health, education and social security.
Each proposal sparked strong opposition, and voters were overwhelmed with complex and often contradictory information about how the bills would change the country. Misinformation flew on both sides.
Gladys Flores, 40, a street vendor, said Sunday that she will vote against the Conservative proposal “because all our rights will be taken away” and “our pensions will be lower.” While the proposed text would cement Chile’s current pension system, which has been criticized for higher payouts, it is unlikely to actually reduce pension payments or significantly remove entitlements.
Conversation about proposed constitutions often turned into debates about policy rather than politics. Ahead of Sunday’s vote, for example, Chile’s emerging far-right Republican Party, which had helped write the proposal, focused its speech not on the merits of the text, but on the idea that voting for it would punish Boric, which has become deeply unpopular as crime has increased.
Felipe Agüero, a political scientist who studied Chile’s transition to democracy from the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1973 to 1990, said the constitutional process was difficult because the replacement of the dictatorship-era charter had been postponed for such a long time. This has made both the left and the right eager to exploit the rare opportunity to significantly influence the country’s future, he said.
“They decided we needed to use this opportunity to change things in a big way — that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. As a result, she said, “there was no interest in reaching a broader consensus.”
Rolando Moreno, 65, a company administrator, said Sunday that he voted against the text because it was partisan. “Politicians created it, and I hate politics,” he said. “There will be no change with these kinds of people.”
He said he was tired of the constitutional process, which in four years required several national votes on whether to maintain the current Constitution, who should write a new text and on the two replacement proposals.
“It’s a joke to have to vote six, seven times in five years,” he said. “We are not their clowns.”
The Chileans’ rejection of the two proposed constitutions is historically very unusual. The votes represent only the 12th and 13th times a nation has rejected a full constitutional referendum in 181 such votes since 1789, according to research by Zachary Elkins and Alex Hudson, American political scientists.
In addition to offering a pro-market approach to government, the proposed constitution rejected on Sunday also included conservative language on social issues.
The part that drew the most attention was a one-word change to the current constitution’s language on the “right to life” that many Chileans feared could be used to challenge a law allowing abortion in some circumstances. The left also feared the bill would lead to laws allowing businesses to invoke religious beliefs to refuse to serve certain customers, such as gay couples and transgender people.
The first constitutional assembly, controlled by the left, attracted intense interest last year, with its sessions broadcast live. But after his proposal was rejected, the public seemed increasingly disillusioned with the trial and media coverage declined.
“This time people are much more detailed about the process,” said María Cristina Escudero, a political scientist at the University of Chile.
He said there will 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 by people to do it again,” he said. “People are tired.”
Before Sunday’s vote, the Boric government and politicians from both parties said that if the proposal was rejected, they would move forward. The current constitution is deeply unpopular, largely because of its ties to the Pinochet years, but it has been reformed about 50 times in the past three decades, and lawmakers are likely to continue trying to change it.
The refusal is a victory for Boric, whose administration was involved in the debate on the Constitution for the first two years. So far his government has achieved very little and his approval rating has plummeted. If the conservative Constitution had been approved, Boric would have had to work with Congress to implement a system of laws outlined in the text. Now he can concentrate on governing the country.
Despite resentment towards the Constitution, Chile remains one of the most stable and prosperous nations in Latin America. The country has the region’s highest score on the United Nations Human Development Index, which aims to measure countries in areas such as education, income and quality of life.
Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago.