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Chileans reject conservative constitution to replace dictatorship-era charter

People against the draft of a new constitution celebrate after the polls closed in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.
Esteban Felix
People against the draft of a new constitution celebrate after the polls closed in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Voters rejected on Sunday a proposed conservative constitution to replace Chile's dictatorship-era charter, showing both the deep division in the South American country and the inability of political sectors to address people's demands for change made four years ago.

With nearly all 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.

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.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric said Sunday night that his government won't try a third attempt to change the constitution, saying there are other priorities.

He admitted he wasn't able to "channel the hopes of having a new constitution written for everyone." On the contrary, he said, after two referendums, "the country became polarized, it was divided."

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.

Now, the constitution adopted during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet — which was amended over the years —- will remain in effect.

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

"I prefer something bad to something worse," said Bachelet, who campaigned to reject the latest charter proposal.

One of the most controversial articles in the draft said that "the law protects the life of the unborn," with a slight change in wording from the current document that some warned could make abortion fully illegal. Chilean law currently allows abortions 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 said the measure could end up benefiting those who have been convicted of crimes against humanity during the Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship.

The charter would have characterized Chile as a social and democratic state that "promotes the progressive development of social rights" through state and private institutions. It was opposed by many local leaders who said it would scrap a 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 said 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.

"Boric wants everybody to be equal," Campos said of the president. "Why should anyone who studies or works their entire life have to share that?"

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.

In Santiago, the capital, talk before Sunday's 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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The Associated Press
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