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Chilean voters reject conservative constitution, after defeating leftist charter last year

By MARÍA VERZA and PATRICIA LUNA, , Associated Press,
Published: December 17, 2023, 4:20pm

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chilean voters rejected on Sunday a proposed conservative constitution to replace the country’s dictatorship-era charter.

With 96% of votes counted late Sunday, about 55.8% had voted “no” to the new charter, with about 44.2% in favor.

The vote came more than a year after Chileans resoundingly rejected a proposed constitution written by a left-leaning convention and one that many characterized as one of the world’s most progressive charters.

The new document, largely written by conservative councilors, was more conservative than the one it had sought to replace, because it would have deepened free-market principles, reduced state intervention and might have limited some women’s rights.

Javier Macaya, the leader of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party, recognized the defeat and urged the government not to raise the issue again.

“From a perspective of coherence and respect for democracy, we recognize the results,” Macaya said.

If the new charter winds up being rejected, the Pinochet-era constitution — which was amended over the years —- will remain in effect.

That is what ex-President Michelle Bachelet had hoped for when she voted early Sunday.

“I prefer something bad to something worse,” said Bachelet, who has campaigned to reject the new constitution.

One of the most controversial articles in the proposed new draft said that “the law protects the life of the unborn,” with a slight change in wording from the current document that some have warned could make abortion fully illegal in the South American country. Chilean law currently allows the interruption of pregnancies for three reasons: rape, an unviable fetus and risk to the life of the mother.

Another article in the proposed document that sparked controversy said prisoners who suffer a terminal illness and aren’t deemed to be a danger to society at large can be granted house arrest. Members of the left-wing opposition have said the measure could end up benefiting those who have been convicted of crimes against humanity during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The new proposed document, which says Chile is a social and democratic state that “promotes the progressive development of social rights” through state and private institutions, was also opposed by many local leaders who say it would scrap tax on houses that are primary residences, a vital source of state revenue that is paid by the wealthiest.

It also would have established new law enforcement institutions and says irregular immigrants should be expelled “as soon as possible.”

César Campos, a 70-year-old taxi driver, turned out early to support the new constitution. He viewed it as a vote against the left, whose ideas largely dominated the first, rejected draft.

“(President Gabriel) Boric wants everybody to be equal,” Campos said. “Why should anyone who studies or works their entire life have to share that?”

The process to write a new constitution began after 2019 street protests, when thousands of people complained about inequality in one of Latin America’s most politically stable and economically strongest countries.

But in 2022, 62% of voters rejected the proposed constitution that would have characterized Chile as a plurinational state, established autonomous Indigenous territories and prioritized the environment and gender parity.

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One of the most recent polls, by the local firm Cadem in late November, indicated 46% of those surveyed said they would vote against the new constitution, while 38% were in favor. The difference was much closer than three months ago when the “no” vote was 20 points ahead of the “yes” side.

In Santiago, the capital, talk before the vote often turned to security rather than the proposed charter. State statistics show an uptick in robberies and other violent crimes, a development that tends to benefit conservative forces.

“This whole process has been a waste of government money … it’s a joke,” said government employee Johanna Anríquez, who voted against the new constitution, calling “it is very extremist.”

“Let’s keep the one we have and, please, let’s get on with the work of providing public safety,” Anríquez said.

There appeared to be little enthusiasm for Sunday’s vote. Most citizens are exhausted after 10 elections of various types in less than 2½ years, but voting is compulsory in Chile.

Malen Riveros, 19, a law student at the University of Chile, said the fervor that was ignited by the 2019 street protests has been lost and for her, the choice on Sunday was between the bad or the worse.

“The hopes were lost with the passing of time,” Riveros said. “People have already forgotten why we went into the streets.”

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