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Chile’s bold experiment: A divided country votes on a new constitution

Delegates of Chile's constituent assembly wave national flags Thursday at the final rally for Chile's proposed constitution in Santiago. (Luis Hidalgo/AP)

SANTIAGO, Chile — For more than four decades, Chile has been governed by a set of principles written by a brutal military dictatorship that was responsible for the torture and murder of thousands.

The 1980 constitution, though since amended, was written to help the authoritarian regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet strengthen its grip on power. It’s also credited with turning the country into a Milton Friedman-inspired, free-market model for the region.

On Sunday, Chileans will vote on a dramatically different vision for their country, a constitution that could transform this South American nation into a new kind of model.

Supporters of the country’s first democratically drafted constitution say it’s among the most inclusive in the world. It describes Chile as a country composed of several autonomous Indigenous nations. It would recognize a national duty to provide a safety net for all citizens. In what’s believed to be a global first, it would guarantee gender parity in government, public and public-private companies. It would grant rights to nature and animals and require the government to address the effects of climate change.

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Perhaps most remarkable is the path that led Chile here. It began with months of massive protests, ignited by an increase in subway fares, known as the social explosion of 2019. As confrontations between protesters and government security forces grew increasingly violent — buses and metro stations burned and protesters blinded by rubber bullets were signatures of the conflict — a group of politicians negotiated an ambitious solution: A referendum to draft a new constitution.

More than three quarters of voters approved the idea in 2020. But now the proposed charter, supported by the leftist President Gabriel Boric, seems poised to fail: Polls last month showed a plurality of voters plan to reject it.

The months-long campaign was marred by misinformation, disinformation and confusion over the content of the 388-article document. Supporters say it would help bring fairness to a deeply unequal society and expand rights to high-quality education, water and health care. Critics, including some prominent voices who identify as center-left, have argued its proposals, particularly those that create structural changes to the country’s political and judicial system, are too radical. Some say it would ruin Chile’s stable and relatively prosperous economy. Some say the constitutional convention did not incorporate the views of its conservative minority.

Any outcome remains possible. Polls have not been allowed in the past two weeks, and it’s unclear whether the turnout of a rare compulsory vote could move the needle toward support.

But the intense division in the country, days before a vote on a charter intended to unify it, underscores the challenges of designing a new government for the 21st century.

“You’ve got high levels of polarization, and democracies are struggling to figure out how they should function, what they should be,” said David Landau, a political scientist and law professor at Florida State University who studies constitutional design and observed the drafting process as a Fulbright grantee.

“It’s almost a global identity crisis for liberal democratic systems,” he said. “It remains to be seen, win or lose, whether Chile can transcend those problems.”

The vote Sunday will serve as a referendum not only on the charter but also on Boric, the 36-year-old former student activist who, as a member of Congress, helped broker the deal to write it. Boric’s administration has urged Chileans to back the charter and has said Congress will reform it as needed.

In addition to critics from the right, a coalition of center-left activists has formed in opposition to the charter. Amarillos por Chile — “Yellows for Chile” — is calling on voters to reject the constitution in the hope of writing a new one. Dozens of the group’s supporters gathered in a hotel conference room in the capital on Thursday, waved yellow flags and sang “I reject.”

Group founder Cristián Warnken, a professor of literature, described the document as an “infinite list of rights” that would be impossible to finance.

Sitting in the audience Thursday, Cecilia Becerra focused on a frequent point of criticism: Its description of Chile as a plurinational country made up of autonomous Indigenous nations.

“Chile can’t be 11 nations,” Becerra said. She described herself as a socialist and said she voted for Boric and for a new constitution, but she plans to vote against the proposed charter. “We are one Chile, with the same rights for everyone, not that some have more rights than others.”

Rosa Catrileo, a constitutional delegate representing the Mapuche people, Chile’s largest Indigenous group, said the recognition of plurinationality “catches up with the reality of Chile, because the original people have existed and will continue to exist with or without the constitution.”

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The constitution would recognize the principle that Indigenous peoples may use their own legal practices to settle disputes. It leaves it to lawmakers to define how this would work. Under the proposal, government and Indigenous legal systems would be integrated and operate on an equal footing, but the Supreme Court would have the authority to revise judgments made by Indigenous courts.

Christian Viera, who coordinated the relevant portions of the draft, said the Indigenous justice system would pertain only to low-level crimes, such as animal theft.

Other critics have focused on proposed changes to the political system. It would replace the senate with a similar but weaker body to be known as the Chamber of Regions. It would allow the possibility that some legislation could become law with the approval of only one chamber.

Oscar Landerretche, an economist at the University of Chile’s School of Economics and Business, said the changes would diminish the legislature’s checks and balances.

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“Any Erdogan or Trump can gerrymander his way to infinite power,” he said. He said the proposal must be read through the lens of worst possible scenarios, such as the rise of another authoritarian leader. “Legal systems cannot be interpreted in the ‘My Little Pony’ way.”

Supporters say the proposed structure would help correct a system that was designed to work against the passage of legislation.

Landau, the Florida State political scientist, said the changes are not as drastic as critics say.

“Domestically, there’s a fear in certain corners that the constitution is going to unleash a set of radical changes,” Landau said. “Whereas everybody I’ve talked to internationally and all the academics and people watching the process from abroad are like, ‘It’s a less radical and more mainstream constitution than this discourse would suggest.’”

On Thursday night, a crowd of thousands flooded the Alameda, the main avenue through downtown Santiago, for a rally to close the campaign to support the proposal. People of all ages held up Chilean and Indigenous flags and chanted “Apruebo!” — Approve! They carried photos of Chileans who disappeared under the Pinochet dictatorship. Many cried when a young man, blinded by police during the 2019 protests, said “I approve, for all of the eyes we have lost.”

In the audience were many who had lived through the terror of the dictatorship, when demonstrations like these were often impossible. A 65-year-old woman whose family member was detained and tortured under Pinochet. A 59-year-old cook who biked to the rally after work, a Chilean flag on his wheel, whose father died of cancer after he couldn’t afford a surgery in time.

Then there were many who were raised in a very different Chile, a democracy that allowed them to demand change.

“It’s a dream generations in the making, of my mother, of my grandmother,” said Rocío Navarrete, a 21-year-old with hoop earrings who came of age protesting on the streets of Santiago in 2019. “They’ve always told us this is the cradle of neoliberalism, so here is where that should fall.”

For some, both in the plaza and across the country, it was a celebration — regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s vote.

“There are countries where, after falling into a profound social crisis, what comes next is a civil war,” said Amaya Álvez, a lawyer and member of the constitutional convention. “In our case, we were capable of reverting a profound social crisis, one marked with violence and deaths, into an institutional process. In an extraordinary way … we proposed a constitution.”

“That, to me,” she said, “is a great achievement.”

John Bartlett contributed to this report.

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