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Chile votes on a landmark new constitution

The draft document would enshrine unprecedented rights — and discard a Pinochet-era framework.

A poll worker cuts the stamps for votes on September 4, 2022.
Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Chileans are in the process of deciding whether or not to approve a historic new constitution that would enshrine new protections for Indigenous people and the environment, as well as the right to an abortion, universal health care, and restrictions on the country’s mining industry.

Chile’s present constitution is a holdover from the rule of Augusto Pinochet, the military leader who took over the country after overthrowing democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. That constitution, originally written in 1981, upholds the free-market policies that buoyed Chile’s economy. But according to opponents, it caused staggering inequality. That inequality, symbolized by a subway fare hike in the capital city of Santiago, ignited widespread protests in 2019; a year later, nearly 80 percent of the population voted to replace the constitution.

The vote is monumental in many ways; it’s a test of 36-year-old President Gabriel Boric’s leftist government, as well as of the constituent assembly, which wrote the new document. It’s also a reminder of the critical role that the plebiscite has played in Chile’s political history. And it could turn Chilean society from fairly conservative to one of Latin America’s most liberal should it pass.

Chile’s new constitution would uproot the remnants of its brutal dictatorship

The call for a new constitution solidified during Chile’s 2019 mass protests, which took place across the nation starting in October of that year. Leftist student groups demanding systemic change and ordinary Chileans suffering from the country’s severe economic inequality gathered in the streets for months, defying government curfews and sometimes clashing with police.

Although Chile has been fairly stable and economically prosperous in the latter part of the 20th century, that prosperity hasn’t touched everyone equally. The country scores high on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s inequality index, and its employment rate has been persistently lower than in most other developed countries, as has its public spending on primary and secondary education, according to a 2021 economic report from the OECD.

The country’s student movement has long been a powerful force in Chilean politics, starting under Pinochet and continuing under subsequent civilian presidencies to subvert government attempts to restrict their rights to protest, as well as the state’s public-private education model, which former President Sebastián Piñera endorsed during his first term. Widespread protests in 2011 against this model, which students said reinforced inequality, were led mostly by university and graduate students — including now-president Boric.

Protesters back in 2011 called for the abolition of government subsidies for private schools and more funding for public education; the new constitution, if approved, would guarantee the right to free education, as well as housing and health care.

It’s also, in a sense, a repudiation of Pinochet’s legacy. Under his brutal regime from 1973 to 1990, no meaningful political opposition was allowed. As many as 3,400 people were forcibly disappeared, tortured, and murdered by the state security services, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons, and tens of thousands more suffered severe human rights abuses, according to Chile’s National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. But Pinochet valued free-market principles and worked to make them a critical part of the Chilean economy.

According to a Congressional report issued in 1975 on the US’s covert actions in Chile, the US government, in a bid to keep Allende and his socialist policies out of power, sought to punish the Chilean economy to show how the global economy would react should Allende assume the presidency. It was in this landscape that, after a US-assisted coup, Pinochet took control and, in the 1980s, sought to reform the economy, lowering tariffs, inviting foreign investment, capitalizing on a copper boom, and joining trade agreements with other nations in the Americas.

Pinochet’s economic reforms and the relative prosperity they brought couldn’t possibly outweigh the horrors his regime committed against the Chilean people. In Chile’s 1980 constitution, Pinochet set out a plan for a 1988 plebiscite; on that date, people could vote on whether they wanted to keep him in office for a further eight years. A concerted national campaign and unified opposition defeated Pinochet, making way for the 1990 presidential election that finally pushed him out.

But many of Pinochet’s economic ideas persisted. After decades of growth, the economy stagnated in the 2010s, despite increases in basic expenses. By 2019, the poor had little access to high-quality health care and education, depending instead on underfunded state resources; the middle class, forced to pay for privatized services including water access and toll roads, risked crushing debt, as Richard Feinberg wrote for the Brookings Institution at the time.

Piñera, the right-wing, billionaire president then in his second term, called out the military and imposed a state of emergency, claiming, “We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.” Though the protests did bring about some looting and violence — ultimately about 30 people were killed — they also brought about an agreement to vote on whether and how to adopt a new constitution.

The proposed constitution is an unusual document

On October 25 2020, the vast majority of Chileans voted to write a new constitution — and to elect the 155 people who would write it. The Pinochet-era constitution had been amended several times under democratic presidents, and former President Michelle Bachelet proposed a new constitution five days before the end of her term in 2018. But Piñera abandoned the project when he entered office — until he could no longer ignore people’s desire for change, and congress proposed the two-part plebiscite in 2019.

The new constitution was written by a constituent group elected by the Chilean people. The assembly had as its president first a linguist, then an epidemiologist, both women, and was primarily made up of liberal and independent members, hence the strong push for equality, gender parity, environmental protection, and social services. The assembly also had 17 seats reserved for members of Chile’s two million strong Indigenous population.

The final draft, submitted July 4 of this year, gives unprecedented rights to Indigenous communities, granting sovereignty over their territories and installing an Indigenous judicial system to try cases particular to those nations. The new constitution also enforces Indigenous representation at all levels of government, as well as gender parity in government and in both public and public-private enterprises, the Washington Post reports.

The new constitution is something quite revolutionary, particularly in comparison to its predecessor; it enshrines the right to “voluntary interruption of [a] pregnancy” in a country where abortion was illegal until 2017.

It recognizes the rights of LGBTQ people, ensures access to education, health care, water, and adequate housing, and seeks to broaden the reach of scientific and technological advancement across Chile. The new constitution also recognizes the rights of nature, providing a legal mechanism for environmental protection, even if people aren’t directly harmed by a particular environmental degradation.

“In a country where it seemed like nothing could change,” it is a monument to change, as constitutional assembly member Bárbara Sepúlveda told the Washington Post. But for some, the change may prove to be too much; because the assembly was overwhelmingly leftist and independent, no conservative voice or coalition was able to counter its progressive policies. Alberto Lyon, an attorney interviewed by the Post, voted for a new constitution but called the draft “a disaster” because “it changes the entire political system.”

Lyon also accused the draft constitution of being “indigenist”; other criticisms have been levied at that particular aspect of the new constitution, with some Chileans — even Indigenous Chileans — expressing concern about the Indigenous justice system and the constitution’s designation of the country as “plurinational,” recognizing Indigenous nations within Chile.

For others, misinformation has played a part in their distrust of the draft. According to Axios, some claims, including that people would no longer be allowed to own private property under the new constitution, and that people would be able to get an abortion into the ninth month of pregnancy, may have crushed support for the new document.

Polling has seen support for the new constitution drop to 37 percent, although it’s impossible to know how much social media misinformation and half-truths — as opposed to people’s fear of change — contributed to the polling numbers. Chileans are still at the voting booths, though, and this is a mandatory vote, meaning that the final numbers could be quite different.

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, Boric promised in July that Chile will eventually get a new constitution, because citizens demanded it in the 2020 vote. At the time, he said in an interview that the process would start from scratch should Chileans reject the current proposal. “The constitutional process, if rejected,” he said, “has to continue by the terms decided by the people of Chile.”