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Chile looks for way forward after decisively rejecting new progressive constitution

With 99.9% of the votes counted, the rejection camp led by 61.9% to 38.1% in heavy turnout with long lines at polling states. Voting was mandatory.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

Chileans overwhelming rejected a new progressive constitution to replace its dictatorship-era charter, dealing a blow to youthful President Gabriel Boric who must now hammer out deals to create another document or change the current one.

Although the proposed charter was expected to be defeated in Sunday’s plebiscite, the almost 24-point win by the rejection camp was a shocking defeat for a document that was three years in the making and had been billed as a democratic effort to replace the constitution imposed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet 41 years ago.

With 99.9% of the votes counted, the rejection camp had 61.9% support compared to 38.1% for approval amid heavy turnout with long lines at polling states. Voting was mandatory.

Boric, who had lobbied hard for the new document, said the results made it evident the Chilean people “were not satisfied with the constitutional proposal that the convention presented to Chile.”

The president said there would now likely be “adjustments to our governing team” as he seeks to find a path forward. Despite the loss, the large majority believe the current constitution needs changing, they just felt the proposed one was not a suitable replacement, analysts say.

Boric made it clear the process to amend it would not end with Sunday’s vote. He said it was necessary for leaders to “work with more determination, more dialogue, more respect” to reach a new proposed charter “that unites us as a country.”

Chilean President Gabriel Boric delivers a speech to the nation after Chileans emphatically rejected a proposed new constitution in a referendum Sunday.Marcelo Segura / AFP - Getty Images

In Chile’s capital of Santiago, horns blared in celebration as groups of people gathered in numerous intersections to celebrate the results.

“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,” said Lorena Cornejo, 34, while waving 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.”

Even some who were in favor of the proposed document put a positive spin on the defeat.

“Although it’s true that I wanted it to be approved, this is a new opportunity to reform everything that people didn’t agree with,” Alain Olivares, 36, said. “We’re just going to have to wait longer to change the constitution.”

Carlos Salinas, a spokesman for the Citizens’ House for Rejection, said the majority of Chileans saw rejection as “a path of hope.”

Despite the expectations of defeat for the proposed charter, no analyst or pollster had predicted such a large margin for the rejection camp, showing how Chileans were not ready to support a charter that would have been one of the most progressive in the world and would have fundamentally changed the South American country.

The constitution was the first in the world to be written by a convention split equally between male and female delegates, but critics said it was too long, lacked clarity and went too far in some of its measures, which included characterizing Chile as a plurinational state and prioritizing the environment and gender parity.

The 388-article proposed charter also introduced rights to free education, health care and housing. It would have established autonomous Indigenous territories and recognized a parallel justice system in those areas, although lawmakers would decide how far-reaching that would be.

In contrast, the current constitution is a market-friendly document that favors the private sector over the state in aspects like education, pensions and health care. It also makes no reference to the country’s Indigenous population, which makes up almost 13% of the population.

The vote marked the climax of a process that began when the country once seen as a paragon of stability in the region exploded in student-led street protests in 2019. The unrest was sparked by a hike in public transportation prices, but it quickly expanded into broader demands for greater equality and more social protections.

Boric, 36 is Chile’s youngest-ever president and a former student protest leader. He had tied his fortunes so closely to the new document that analysts said it was likely some voters saw the plebiscite as a referendum on his government at a time when his approval ratings have been plunging since he took office in March.

What happens now amounts to a big question mark. Chilean political leaders of all stripes agree the constitution that dates from the country’s 1973-1990 dictatorship must change. The process that will be chosen to write up a new proposal still has to be determined and will likely be the subject of hard-fought negotiations between the country’s political leadership.

Boric has called on the heads of all political parties for a meeting tomorrow to determine the path forward.