Chile’s move to replace dictatorship constitution faces test
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Two years ago, the vast majority of Chileans reached a conclusion: The constitution needs to change.
Now, as voters prepare for a referendum Sunday, many Chileans think the proposed new charter will be rejected amid frustration over the process, questions about its content and what supporters say is a surge in fake news that has confused citizens about what is actually in the document.
Just under 80% of Chileans voted to call for a new constitution in October 2020 and in 2021 elected delegates to a convention to draft the new document. Getting rid of the constitution dating from Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship was seen as a way to answer student-led protests that were sparked by a hike in public transportation prices but which quickly expanded into broader demands for greater equality and more social protections.
But opinion polls indicate Chileans may be poised to reject the replacement document written by the convention, which included issues like gender equality, environmental protections and Indigenous rights throughout the document’s 388 articles and 178 pages that would fundamentally change Chilean society.
“We are facing one of the most important elections that we’ve had in the history of Chile, if not the most important,” said Gaspar Domínguez, former vice president of the constitutional convention.
Domínguez, a 33-year-old rural physician and political independent, exemplifies the type of delegate that Chileans elected to draw up their new constitution amid the anti-establishment fervor that followed the street protests. The majority of the convention delegates did not come from the traditional political parties.
Domínguez says he is confident the polls are wrong and Chileans will end up adopting the new constitution. But if it fails, he insists misinformation will be a main culprit.
“There are multiple and diverse reasons to reject (the proposed constitution), but many do it because they heard the text has things that it doesn’t,” he said, noting, for example, a persistent rumor that people would have to give up their houses or share them with migrants.
Others push back against the insistence that fake news is to blame for people souring on the document.
“Constitutions can be interpreted, that’s why we have supreme courts,” said Robert Funk, a political scientist at Chile University. While Funk agrees that lies have been spread about the document, he says that “treating a different interpretation as fake news is extremely dangerous.”
Domínguez points to events that affected “the confidence of the citizenry in the process” of writing the new constitution, among them a delegate lying about having leukemia, another casting a vote while taking a shower and others showing up for work at the convention dressed in costumes.
These headline-grabbing events undermined the credibility of the convention and raised questions about what the delegates were doing.
“The literature always says that the process is as important as the result,” said Octavio Avendaño, a sociologist at Chile University. “The process failed here.”
For Paulina Lobos, the delegates “did not rise to the occasion of the responsibility that the country handed to them.”
Lobos voted in favor of changing the constitution in 2020 “with a lot of hope,” but she has since grown so disillusioned with the work of the convention that she has been campaigning against the document.
It wasn’t just about the process, but the contents of the document as well, she said.
“It went from being the imposition that we had in 1980 by a group of military officers and right-wingers to being an imposition by leftist radicals on society at large,” Lobos said.
Some of the most controversial articles in the proposed constitution have to do with Chile’s Indigenous population, which makes up almost 13% of the country’s 19 million people. The charter would characterize Chile as a plurinational state, establish autonomous territories and recognize a parallel justice system in those areas, although how far-reaching that would be would still have to be decided by lawmakers.
The document also enshrines sexual and reproductive rights, alluding to abortion without mentioning it in a country where terminating pregnancy remains illegal except for medical reasons or in cases of rape. It also puts the environment on center stage in a country that is the world’s top copper producer.
As more Chileans started hearing details about what the new constitution would include, many began growing wary.
Valentina Rosas saw this switch first hand. Rosas is the deputy director of We Have to Talk About Chile, run by the Catholic University and Chile University, a platform that seeks to get citizens to talk to each other about important issues through a virtual platform.
In the beginning of the constitutional process “the word we registered the most was ‘hope’,” she said. “These days, the word we register the most is ‘uncertainty’.”
That uncertainty has to do at least in part with the sheer length of the document.
“It’s an excessively long proposal, one of the biggest in the world,” said Kenneth Bunker, head of PTG, a Santiago-based political consultancy.
“The text is way too long and leaves a lot of space for criticism,” Avendaño agrees. “More than a constitutional text it looks like a government program.”
In an effort to deal with this uncertainty, President Gabriel Boric, a strong proponent of amending the constitution, and his allies have publicly committed to changing or clarifying some of the most controversial points of the document if it is approved.
The administration of Boric, 36, is so closely tied to the new constitution that a lot of people “associate the referendum with the government,” Bunker said. That is bad news for the proposed document becasue the approval ratings of the country’s youngest ever president have plunged since he took office in March.
The latest poll by Cadem, a local pollster, said 46% percent of Chileans leaned toward rejection and 37% supported the new charter, with a margin of error of plus or minues three percentage points.
That is in line with other polls, but some insist there could be a surprise Sunday, in part because the voting is mandatory for Chile’s 15 million voters.
“It’s possible that polls are not able to truly understand voter intent,” said Mario Herrera, a researcher at the Political Analysis Center at Talca University. “A key issue is whether people believe they will truly be fined if they don’t vote.”
There may also be room for a surprise because of the unique time in Chile’s history.
“Over the last few years, Chile has found itself in a moment if re-founding, questioning the political and economic system, and that hasn’t changed,” Funk said. “It’s probable that rejection will win, but we can’t rule out the possibility that approval will come out on top” because campaigners have an “emotional argument” to get rid of the old document.
At the closing rally of the campaign to approve the new constitution Thursday night, thousands of people took over a main Santiago avenue. They danced, waved flags and chanted support amid widespread optimism they can prove the pollsters wrong.
“There is a large group of people who will go vote who normally don’t,” Natalia Iriarte, a school teacher, said at the rally in explaining why she is optimistic about the prospects for the new document. “It won’t be easy, Chile is a country that is very reticent to change.”
Associated Press writers Patricia Luna and Eva Vergara contributed.