Chilean voters overwhelmingly reject proposed progressive constitution in national referendum

Chileans resoundingly rejected a new constitution to replace a charter imposed by the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet 41 years ago, dealing a stinging setback to President Gabriel Boric who argued the document would have ushered in a progressive era.

Existing charter imposed during dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet 41 years ago

A voter casts a ballot in Santiago, Chile, on Sunday. Chileans turned out en masse to vote on whether to adopt a progressive new constitution. (Jonnathan Oyarzun/Getty Images)

Chileans resoundingly rejected a new constitution to replace a charter imposed by the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet 41 years ago, dealing a stinging setback to President Gabriel Boric who argued the document would have ushered in a progressive era.

With 99 per cent of the votes counted in Sunday's plebiscite, the rejection camp had 61.9 per cent support compared to 38.1 per cent for approval amid what appeared to be a heavy turnout with long lines at polling states. Voting was mandatory.

The approval camp conceded defeat. "We recognize this result and we listen with humility to what the Chilean people have expressed," spokesperson Vlado Mirosevic said.

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."

Most Chileans favour changing the dictatorship-era constitution and 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."

Chile President Gabriel Boric holds a news conference after casting his vote in Punta Arenas on Sunday. (Andres Poblete/The Associated Press)

The rejection of the document was broadly expected in this country of 19 million as months of pre-election polling had shown Chileans had grown wary of the document that was written up by a constituent assembly in which a majority of delegates were not affiliated with a political party.

Carlos Salinas, a spokesperson for the Citizens' House for Rejection, said the majority of Chileans saw rejection as "a path of hope."

"We want to tell the government of President Gabriel Boric ... that 'today you must be the president of all Chileans and together we must move forward,'" he said.

Despite these expectations, 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 nation.

Opponents of the proposed constitution celebrate in Santiago on Sunday. (Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters)

The proposed charter 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, establish autonomous Indigenous territories, and prioritize the environment.

"The constitution that was written now leans too far to one side and does not have the vision of all Chileans," Roberto Briones, 41, said after voting in Chile's capital of Santiago. "We all want a new constitution, but it needs to have a better structure."

But others had fervently hoped it would pass.

Supporters of the proposed constitution embrace in Santiago on Sunday. (Matias Basualdo/The Associated Press)

Italo Hernandez, 50, said he backed the changes as he exited the polling station in the National Stadium in Chile's capital of Santiago. "We have to leave behind Pinochet's constitution that only favoured people with money."

Hernandez said it was "very symbolic and very emotional" to be voting at a stadium that had been used as a detention and torture site during the military dictatorship.

The result deals a major blow to Boric, who at 36 is Chile's youngest-ever president. 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.

Unclear path forward

What happens now amounts to a big question mark. Chilean society at large, and political leadership of all stripes, have agreed 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.

The vote marked the climax of a three-year 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.

Electoral workers count ballots at a polling station in Santiago on Sunday. (Ailen Diaz/Reuters)

The following year, just under 80 per cent of Chileans voted in favour of changing the country's constitution. Then in 2021, they elected delegates to a constitutional convention.

The 388-article proposed charter sought to put a focus on social issues and gender parity, enshrined rights for the country's Indigenous population and put the environment and climate change centre stage in a country that is the world's top copper producer. It also introduced rights to free education, health-care and housing.

The new constitution 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 favours 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 per cent of the population.