Chile voted overwhelmingly against a new, progressive constitution on Sunday. A total of 62% of voters voted “no” to the measure, while 38% supported it. Even the most pessimistic polls did not anticipate such a wide margin. The result is a huge blow for the government of Gabriel Boric, who had staked everything on the constitution’s approval. Chile’s political right and a good part of the center-left were able to convince the people that the charter, drafted by a constitutional convention dominated by the left, would hurt the country. President Boric acknowledged defeat and promised to build a “new constitutional roadmap” by working with Congress and civil society.”
The proposed constitution was an effort to address the social unrest that erupted in the 2019 street protests. But, almost three years later, the people declared that it was not enough. The new charter sought profound changes, with an emphasis on gender equality, environmental issues and recognition of indigenous peoples. But support for the move began to wane, with Chileans losing confidence in the constitutional convention, while others feared the document would threaten their status quo. Despite the defeat, the Chilean people still agree that the current Constitution, drawn up behind doors during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, must go. Boric said Sunday that he will call for “the national unity of all sectors” to ensure that the push for constitutional change continues.
“We want to listen to all the voices to move forward with this process,” Boric said from Punta Arenas, a city in far southern Chile, where he grew up and still has his home. Boric said he wanted to bring together the political and civil forces that have campaigned against the new constitution. This coalition includes parties on the right as well as influential voices on the center-left, including important figures involved in the democratic transition that began in 1990. Although he avoided sharing how he had voted, former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) warned from the beginning of the referendum process that the text drafted by the convention would not “unite Chileans.” “This exercise has brought about a state of hatred, and that is not viable in a civilized society. Tomorrow [on Monday] a new constitutional debate begins,” he said after voting in the capital.
With Sunday’s defeat, the government must decide on a new way to incorporate the varying demands of society in a single text. The process will now return “to the hands of traditional politics,” said Juan Pardo, director of studies of the Feedback consultancy, “and there the positions are balanced.” According to Pardo, “there will be a return to the centrist consensus.” Ahead of the vote, Boric said that he had consulted with constitutionalists “to give continuity to the process” in case the new constitution was rejected.
The proposed charter ensured equality between men and women in various fields and included greater environmental projections. Key aspects included the definition of a social and democratic state and the incorporation of new economic and social rights. But it also contained elements that divided Chilean society. According to the latest Feedback survey, released in mid-July, 39% believed that not everyone would be “equal before the law” under the new charter, while 31% responded that recognizing Chile as a “plurinational” country would cause further divisions. The rights of indigenous people, who make up 13% of the population, was another central issues both in the drafting of the new constitution and in the campaign period.
It is not yet clear whether there will be a new plebiscite to determine how to move forward, or whether a new convention will be directly called. The rules for the election of constitutional convention would not be the same as in the previous process, with its structure, number of participants and work period set to change. There will likely be a discussion about the 17 seats reserved for indigenous peoples and the extensive provisions for independent representatives, although there would be greater consensus on maintaining gender parity.
With the overwhelming defeat on Sunday, the country’s moderates have won. The opposition campaign relied on the work of center-left groups, traditional right-wing parties and the many voters who do not identify with the political sectors. The defeat, however, is just the beginning of a long road for Chile in its bid to replace the Pinochet-era constitution.