SANTIAGO, Chile – Chileans voted in a plebiscite on Sunday on whether to adopt a sweeping new constitution that would fundamentally change the South American country.
The proposed charter aims to replace a constitution imposed by the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet 41 years ago.
For months, polls have shown a clear lead for the rejectionist camp, but the margin has been narrowing, giving charter supporters hope they can pull out a victory.
“We are obviously in a situation where the result will be close,” said Martha Lagos, head of MORI, a local pollster. “The Chilean is a political animal who decides at the last moment.”
The result will have a huge effect on President Gabriel Borich, 36, who was one of the main supporters of the new constitution. Analysts say voters are also likely to see the vote as a referendum on Chile’s youngest president, whose popularity has plummeted since taking office in March.
Fifty-year-old Italo Hernandez said he supported the changes as he emerged from a polling station at the National Stadium in Chile’s capital, Santiago, on an unseasonably warm and sunny winter’s day. “We must abandon Pinochet’s constitution, which only benefited people with money.”
Hernandez said it was “very symbolic and very emotional” to vote in a stadium that was used as a place of detention and torture during the military dictatorship.
Others, however, remain deeply skeptical of the proposed charter.
“There are other ways and avenues to get what the people want or what we need as a nation than just changing the constitution,” said Mabel Castillo, 42. “We all have to evolve. I know it’s an ancient constitution that needs changes, but not the way it’s done today.
The vote is mandatory in the plebiscite, which is the culmination of a three-year process that began when the country, once seen as a paragon of stability in the region, erupted in student-led street protests in 2019. The unrest was sparked by soaring public transport prices, but quickly expanded to broader demands for greater equality and more social protection.
The following year, just under 80% of Chileans voted to change the country’s constitution, which dates back to the country’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet.
Then in 2021 they elected delegates to a constitutional convention. Amid the fervor against the system of the time, Chileans largely chose people from outside the traditional political establishment to draft the new constitution. It was the first in the world to be written by a congress divided equally between male and female delegates.
The composition of the convention is exactly why some people are excited to vote on the new document.
“This is the first time that we are all writing a constitution because before it was only up to small, powerful groups,” Fernando Flores, 71, said after casting his vote. “We can’t continue to live like this.”
After months of work, delegates came up with a 178-page document with 388 articles that, among other things, emphasizes social issues and gender equality, enshrines the rights of the country’s indigenous peoples, and puts the environment and climate change at the center of the a country that is the largest producer of copper in the world. It also introduced rights to free education, healthcare and housing.
The new constitution will characterize Chile as a multinational state, create autonomous indigenous territories and recognize a parallel judicial system in those areas, although lawmakers will decide how far-reaching this will be.
In contrast, the current constitution is a pro-market document that favors the private sector over the state in areas such as education, pensions and health care. It also makes no mention of the country’s indigenous population, who make up almost 13% of the country’s 19 million people.
“This is a gateway to building a fairer, more democratic society,” said Eliza Loncon, an indigenous leader who served as the convention’s first president. “It’s not as if Chile will wake up with all its political and economic problems automatically solved, but it’s a starting point.”
Hundreds of thousands of people took over a main street in Chile’s capital Thursday night at the final rally of the charter campaign, a turnout supporters say shows a level of excitement that polls don’t reflect.
“The polls have failed to capture the new voter and above all the young voter,” Loncon said.
Once the convention got underway, Chileans quickly began to resent the proposed document, with some worried that it was too left-wing.
“The constitution that was written now leans too much to one side and does not have the vision of all Chileans,” Roberto Briones, 41, said after the vote. “We all want a new constitution, but it must have a better structure.” Briones particularly objected to the “different justice systems,” saying: “We are all Chileans, regardless of our different origins.”
Supporters say the backlash against the new document is due at least in part to the flood of lies spread about its contents.
But Chileans also grew frustrated with congressional delegates who often made headlines for the wrong reasons: one lied about having leukemia and another voted while taking a shower.
“An opportunity to build a new social pact in Chile was missed,” said Senator Javier Macaya, head of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party, which campaigned against the new constitution. “We are defending the option to reject (the document), so we have another chance to do things better.”
Makaya insists it is important that the new constitution wins approval by a wide margin “through consensus and compromise”.
Although Chileans, including the country’s political leadership, largely agree that the dictatorship-era constitution should be rejected, how this will be achieved if the current proposal is rejected remains to be seen.
“If it is rejected, what is being institutionalized is the preservation of Pinochet’s constitution – a constitution that no longer meets the needs of Chilean society,” Loncon said.
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