Chile Rejects Conservative Constitution – The New York Times

On Sunday, Chileans rejected a new constitution that would have pulled the country to the right, possibly ending a tumultuous four-year process to replace their national charter with little to show for it.

Nearly 56 percent of voters rejected the proposed text, with all votes 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 – showing how deeply divided the nation remains over a set of rules and principles to govern it even after four years of debate .

This debate began in 2019 after massive protests sparked a national referendum in which four out of five Chileans voted to scrap their constitution, a heavily amended version of the 1980 text adopted during the bloody military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet .

But now that they have failed to agree on a new text, the nation will messed up along with the constitution that so many had voted to replace.

“I want to be clear: during my mandate, the constitutional process has been closed,” President Gabriel Borich, a leftist who stayed out of the process, said in an address Sunday night. “The country is polarized and divided, and despite this convincing result, the constitutional process has failed to channel the hopes of achieving a new constitution written for all.”

That makes the outcome of Sunday’s vote bittersweet. A process that was once hailed as a model of democratic participation now instead serves as an example of how difficult democracy really is, especially in the Internet age.

“This could have been an opportunity for people to believe again in politics, in politicians — and it didn’t happen,” Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s leftist former president, said in an interview before the vote. “No one is going to try to make a third version of this process.”

Chileans twice elected mostly political outsiders—doctors, engineers, lawyers, farmers, social workers, and others—to constitutional assemblies to draft the proposed charters. But these bodies eventually produced long, complex constitutions, each in the partisan pattern of the political party that controlled the assembly.

The left-wing assembly last year proposed a constitution that would expand abortion rights, give indigenous groups more sovereignty and enshrine a record number of rights, including housing, internet access, clean air and care from birth to death.

After 62 percent of ballots rejected that text, voters chose the conservatives to control the new constitutional assembly. This group came up with a proposal that would have given the private sector an important role in areas such as health, education and social security.

Each proposal drew fierce opposition, and voters were bombarded with complex and often conflicting information about how the texts would change the country. Misinformation was flying from both sides.

Gladys Flores, 40, a street vendor, said on Sunday she was voting against the Conservative proposal “because all our rights will be taken away” and “our pensions will be lower”. While the proposed text would have cemented Chile’s current pension system, which has been criticized for meager payments, it was unlikely to actually reduce pension payments or significantly take away entitlements.

Talk of proposed constitutions often devolved into debates about politics rather than politics. Before Sunday’s vote, for example, Chile’s growing far-right Republican Party, which helped write the proposal, focused not on the merits of the text but on the idea that a vote for it would punish Mr. Borich, who has become deeply unpopular. as crime rate rises.

Felipe Aguero, a political scientist who has 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 replacing the dictatorship-era charter had been delayed for so long. This has left both the left and the right scrambling to take advantage of the rare chance to significantly influence the country’s future, he said.

“They decided that we should use this opportunity to turn things around in a big way — that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. As a result, he said, “there was no interest in reaching a broader consensus.”

Rolando Moreno, 65, a business administrator, said Sunday he voted to reject the text because he was partisan. “Politicians created it, and I hate politics,” he said. “There’s not going to be any change with these types of people.”

He said he was tired of the constitutional process, which for four years required various national votes on whether to keep the current constitution, who would write a new text and two proposed replacements.

“It’s a joke to have to vote six, seven times in five years,” he said. “We are not their clowns.

The rejection of the two proposed constitutions by Chileans is highly unusual from a historical perspective. The votes represent just 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, US political scientists.

Besides offering a pro-market approach to governance, 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 in the current constitution’s language about the “right to life,” which many Chileans worried would be used to challenge a law allowing abortion in certain circumstances. The left also worries that the text would lead to laws that would allow businesses to invoke religious beliefs to refuse service to certain customers, such as gay couples and transgender people.

The first constitutional assembly, which was controlled by the left, generated a lot of interest last year, with its sessions being broadcast live. But after the proposal was rejected, the public seemed to grow disenchanted with the process and media coverage declined.

“This time, people are much more detached from the process,” said María Cristina Escudero, a political scientist at the University of Chile.

She said there would almost certainly not be a third attempt at a new constitution, at least for some time.

“There is no popular will for this, no social movement from the people to do this again,” she said. “People are tired.”

Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Mr Boric’s government and politicians from both parties said that if the proposal was rejected, they would press on. The current constitution is deeply unpopular, largely because of its ties to the Pinochet years, but it has been reformed roughly 50 times over the past three decades, and lawmakers are likely to continue trying to fix it.

The rejection is a victory for Mr Borich, whose administration has been tied up in the debate over the constitution for the first two years. His government has achieved little so far and his approval rating has plummeted. If the conservative constitution had been approved, Mr Borich would have had to work with Congress to introduce a system of laws laid out in the text. Now he can focus on running the country.

Despite the hatred against the constitution, Chile remains one of the most stable and prosperous nations in Latin America. The country has the highest rating in the region on the United Nations Human Development Index, which aims to measure countries in areas such as education, income and quality of life.

Pascal Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago.

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