Chile Says ‘No’ to Left-Leaning Constitution After 3 Years of Debate

SANTIAGO, Chile — For the past three years, Chileans have fought over a new path forward for their country in the form of a Constitution, written entirely from scratch, that would transform their society and grant more rights than any national charter before it.

On Sunday, they rejected that text.

The proposed changes had looked to remake one of the most conservative countries in Latin America into one of the world’s most left-leaning societies, but Chileans decided that went too far.

The rejection was an abrupt ending to a long and sometimes painful process that had promised a political revolution for this South American nation of 19 million, but instead leaves Chile deeply divided over its future.

Chile is left, for now, with the same system of laws that has its roots in the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990.

The question of what comes next for Chile — and how the country can address the grievances over inequality that led first to violent protests and then this attempt at a new Constitution — is now shrouded in uncertainty after the new document’s failure on Sunday to win over voters.

A Mapuche woman voting in Temuco, Chile on Sunday.Credit…Juan Gonzalez/Reuters

That Chileans want change of some sort seems clear.

In a vote in 2020 — held in the wake of nationwide protests, set off by a 4-cent hike in subway fares, that left 30 dead in 2019 — nearly four out of five Chileans said they wanted a new charter.

But the transformational vision laid out by a constitutional convention of 154 elected members, many of them political outsiders, proved too drastic of an overhaul for a majority of the country.

With 72 percent of the ballots counted, 62 percent of Chileans had rejected the document, and the leaders of the campaign to approve the Constitution conceded defeat.

Now, Chile’s political establishment will have to decide the next steps. Political leaders on both sides have said the current Constitution must be overhauled or entirely replaced, but how, and when, is unclear.

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Conservative leaders may try to rewrite or change the text through Congress, while Chile’s leftist president, Gabriel Boric, has said that voters should elect a new constitutional convention to draft another proposal and begin all over again.

The vote on Sunday was an enormous setback for Mr. Boric, a tattooed, 36-year-old former student-protest leader who took office in March. He has quickly faced plummeting approval ratings amid rising inflation and crime, and he was betting on the new Constitution to enable him to carry out his leftist vision for the country. Instead, much of his term is now likely be mired in more political fighting about the country’s constitutional future.

Chilean voters rejected a 170-page, 388-article proposal that would have legalized abortion, mandated universal health care, required gender parity in government, given Indigenous groups greater autonomy, empowered labor unions, strengthened regulations on mining and granted rights to nature and animals.

President Gabriel Boric of Chile speaking in Punta Arenas after casting his vote on Sunday.Credit…Andres Poblete/Associated Press

In total, it would have enshrined over 100 rights into Chile’s national charter, more than any other constitution in the world, including the right to housing, education, clean air, water, food, sanitation, internet access, retirement benefits, free legal advice and care “from birth to death.”

And it would have eliminated the Senate, strengthened regional governments and allowed Chilean presidents to run for a second consecutive term.

The text included commitments to fight climate change and protect Chileans’ right to choose their own identity “in all its dimensions and manifestations, including sexual characteristics, gender identities and expressions.”

The proposal’s sweeping ambition turned off many Chileans, including many who previously had voted to replace the current text. There was widespread uncertainty about its implications and cost, some of which was fueled by misleading information, including claims that it would have banned homeownership and that abortion would have been allowed in the ninth month of pregnancy.

Economists expected the proposed changes to cost from 9 percent to 14 percent of Chile’s $317 billion gross domestic product. The country has long been one of the lowest relative spenders on public services among major democracies.

Many voters were particularly opposed to language that defined Chile as a “plurinational” state, meaning 11 Indigenous groups, which account for nearly 13 percent of the population, could have been recognized as their own nations within the country, with their own governing structures and court systems. The proposal became a centerpiece of the campaign to reject the charter.

A woman in a wheelchair voting on Sunday. Credit…Claudio Reyes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Many Chileans had also grown concerned about the constitutional convention that wrote the proposal, particularly its most left-wing members.

After the constitutional referendum in 2020, Chileans elected more than 150 people to write the new system of rules. Independents won more than half the seats, including lawyers, academics, journalists, two actors, a dentist, a mechanic, a chess master and a bevy of left-wing activists, including one who became famous for protesting in a Pikachu costume. Seventeen seats went to Indigenous people.

Leftists, who won more than two-thirds of the seats, took full control of the process; they did not need a single vote from conservative convention members to approve additions to the proposal.

As a result, said Ricardo Lagos, the center-left president of Chile from 2000 to 2006, the proposal was “extremely partisan.”

But it was the highly publicized behavior of some of the convention’s members that might have repelled Chileans even more. One constitution member was revealed to be faking a cancer diagnosis he had used in his election campaign. Another took a shower with his camera on during a remote vote.

Patricio Fernández, a leftist writer who was a member of the convention, said he regretted that those headlines might have helped spoil a historic opportunity for his country.

“I’m far from believing that this is a perfect proposal,” he said before the vote. “But it is a democratic agreement that incorporated many voices that historically have been marginalized in Chile.”

María Eugenia Muse, 57, a health-insurance saleswoman, was leaving a polling station in a wealthy neighborhood in Santiago late Sunday afternoon with her 84-year-old mother on her arm. They both had voted to draft a new constitution in 2020 — and to reject the proposed replacement on Sunday.

“It was a fiasco, an embarrassment what they did,” she said. “The Constitution they wrote is not the constitution of Chile, of the Chilean people. It is the Constitution of one group.”

Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting.

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