Chileans on Sunday rejected a new constitution that would have pulled the country to the right, likely ending a turbulent four-year process to replace their national charter with little to show for it.
More than 55 percent voted to reject the proposed text, with 77 percent of the votes counted.
It is the second time in 16 months that Chile, a South American nation of 19 million, has rebuffed a proposed constitution — the other was written by the left — showing how deeply divided the nation remains over the set of rules and principles to govern the country even after four years of debate.
That debate began in 2019 after enormous protests prompted a national referendum in which four out of five Chileans voted to scrap the constitution, a heavily amended version of the 1980 text adopted by the bloody military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
But now, after failing to agree on a new text, the nation will likely forge ahead with the current constitution that so many people had voted to replace.
That makes Sunday’s result a bitter outcome to a process that had once been hailed as a paragon for democratic participation, but has instead become a clear example of how difficult democracy truly is, particularly in the internet age.
“This could have been a possibility for people to believe again in politics, in politicians. And that has not happened,” Michelle Bachelet, a leftist former president of Chile, said in an interview ahead of the vote. “Nobody will try to do 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 proposed charters. But those bodies ended up creating long, complicated constitutions that were each in the partisan mold of the political side that controlled the assembly.
The left-leaning assembly last year offered a constitution that would have expanded abortion rights, given Indigenous groups more sovereignty and enshrined a record number of rights, including to housing, internet access, clean air and care “from birth to death.” After 62 percent of ballots rejected that text, voters elected conservatives to control a new constitutional assembly. That group created a proposal that would have given the private sector a prominent role in areas like health, education and social security.
Each proposal engendered fierce opposition, and voters were overwhelmed with complex and often contradictory information about how the texts would change the country. Misinformation flew from both sides.
Gladys Flores, 40, a street vendor, said Sunday that she was voting against the conservative proposal “because all of 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 payouts, it was unlikely to actually reduce pension payments or significantly take away rights.
The conversation over the proposed constitutions often devolved into debates over politics rather than policy. Leading up to Sunday’s vote, for instance, Chile’s surging far-right Republic Party, which had helped write the proposal, focused its pitch not on the text’s merits, but on the idea that voting for it would punish President Gabriel Boric, a leftist who has become deeply unpopular as people are concerned about a rise in crime.
Felipe Agüero, a political scientist who has studied Chile’s transition to democracy from the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1973-90, said that the constitutional process was fraught because replacing the dictatorship-era charter had been put off for so long. That has made both the left and the right eager to capitalize on the rare chance to significantly sway the country’s future, he said.
“They decided that we have to use this opportunity to turn things around in a big way. That this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” he said. As a result, “there was no interest in reaching a broader consensus.”
Rolando Moreno, 65, a business administrator said Sunday that he voted to reject the text because it was a partisan document. “It was politicians who created it and I hate politics,” he said. “There’s not going to be any change with these kind of people.”
He said that he was tired of the constitutional process, which in four years has required various national votes on whether to keep the current constitution, on whom should write a new text and on the two proposed replacements. “It’s a joke to be having to vote six, seven times in five years,” he said. “We are not their clowns.”
Chile’s rejecting of the two proposed constitutions is highly unusual historically. The no votes represent just the 12th and 13th times that a nation has rejected a full constitutional referendum in 181 such votes since 1789, according to research by Zachary Elkins and Alex Hudson, American political scientists.
Besides offering a pro-market approach to governing, the proposed constitution defeated on Sunday also included some conservative language on social issues. The part that attracted the most attention was a one-word change to the current constitution’s language on “the right to life” that many Chileans worried would be used to challenge the nation’s law that allowed for abortion in some circumstances. The left also worried that the text would have led to laws that enabled businesses to invoke religious beliefs to not provide services to certain customers, such as gay couples and transgender people.
The first constitutional assembly, which was controlled by the left, garnered intense interest last year, with its sessions broadcast live. But after its proposal was defeated, the public appeared to grow disillusioned with the process and media coverage decreased.
“This time people are a lot 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 it, no social movement from the people to do this again,” she said. “People are tired.”
Mr. Boric’s government and politicians from both sides said before Sunday’s vote that if the proposal was rejected they would move 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 legislators are likely to continue to try to adjust it.
The rejection is a victory for Mr. Boric, whose administration has been tied up with the debate over the constitution for its first two years. His government has accomplished little so far, and his approval ratings have plummeted. Had the conservative constitution been approved, Mr. Boric would have had to work with Congress to put in place a system of laws laid out in the text. Now, he can focus on governing the country.
Despite the rancor over the constitution, Chile remains one of the most stable and prosperous nations in Latin America. The country has the region’s highest rating on the United Nations Human Development Index, which aims to measure countries in areas like education, income and quality of life.
Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago.