Two thirds of Chilean voters back rewriting their constitution

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Amid a year of contagion and turmoil, Chileans turned out on Sunday to vote overwhelmingly in favour of having a constitutional convention draft a new charter to replace guiding principles imposed four decades ago under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The country’s conservative government had agreed with the centre-left opposition to allow the plebiscite after the outbreak of vast street protests that erupted a year ago in frustration over inequality in pensions, education and healthcare in what has long been one of South America’s most developed nations.

The Electoral Service said on Sunday night that with nearly all polling stations reporting, about 78 per cent of the 7.4 million votes counted favoured drawing up a new constitution, while just under 22 per cent were opposed. About 79 per cent supported having the charter be drafted by a convention of 155 elected citizens rather than a convention with half its members elected citizens and half members of congress.

In a speech to the country, centre-right President Sebastián Piñera acknowledged the victory for those seeking a new charter but cautioned it is only the start of a long process.

“It is the beginning of a path, which together we will have to go through to agree on a new constitution for Chile,” said the president, who had opposed having a new constitution though he had conceded earlier in the day that it likely would be supported by voters.

The special convention would begin drafting a new constitution that would be submitted to voters in mid-2022.

As Piñera spoke, thousands of people celebrated in a central square of the capital used for festivities and protests. Similar gatherings were held on the outskirts of Santiago.

“What happened in the social outburst is now reflected in the outcome of the plebiscite,” said one celebrant, Paulina León. “I was part of the marches a year ago and I have to take care of my decision and help build a dignified constitution.”

People gather at Plaza Italia on the day Chileans voted in a referendum to decide whether the country should replace its 40-year-old constitution. PHOTO: AP