Chileans head to the polls on Sunday to either approve or reject what has been described as the world’s most progressive constitution, which would replace the 1980 document drawn up during Gen Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
The referendum marks the culmination of three tumultuous years of protest and political upheaval, in which a protest over subway prices grew into a broad uprising against deeply rooted inequalities and a disconnected political class.
Many hope that the new constitution will usher the country towards a fairer future, but the document has been criticized for its verbosity and lack of precision – and polls suggest it may struggle to pass.
Campaigns closed on Thursday night after weeks of frantic advocacy.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the center of Santiago, to watch politicians, public figures and musicians make the case for approving the proposal.
Nearby, a small crowd of several hundred people brandishing the Chilean flag gathered for the Reject campaign’s closing rally.
Polls have consistently shown that Chileans will vote to reject the constitution, although the campaign in favor of the proposal has gathered momentum as the vote approaches.
Among the crowds clamoring for a new future under the proposed constitution was Manuela Chateau Vives, an 18-year-old student from Santiago who will be voting for the first time.
“It’s so exciting to vote for a constitution that represents the demands we raised during the protests,” she said, peering through the sea of flags to the stage set up on one of the capital’s main avenues. “Our generation were the ones who jumped ticket barriers to kick this movement off, and now it’s up to us to finish it.”
That small act of civil disobedience triggered a tidal wave of dissent, igniting a political crisis and eventually prompting political leaders to agree to a new constitutional referendum. When the vote was held a year later, nearly 80% of voters opted for a new document.
The draft enshrines gender parity, recognizes Chile’s Indigenous peoples for the first time, and makes the state responsible for mitigating climate change.
But it has come under fierce criticism for its shakeup of the political system, which would replace the senate with a “chamber of regions” comprising delegates from around the country.
“The constitution has a very strong Indigenous bias,” said Cristián Warnken, a lecturer and columnist who founded a centrist party to voice his concerns over the proposal.
“The political system [it proposes] is an experiment – there’s nothing like it around the world – and the list of social rights will be difficult to end. It’s irresponsible.”
Other observers are less concerned.
“It’s a good constitution” said David Landau, a law professor at Florida State University who has been in Santiago following the process closely.
“There’s nothing that radical in there. It reflects the trends in modern constitutionalism, with a handful of innovative clauses.”
While some international support has been effusive, the Financial Times, Economist and Washington Post have all published stinging criticisms of the proposal and suggest a rewrite.
Both the result and the way forward should Chileans reject the proposal are far from certain.
Chilean elections are usually voluntary and characterized by low turnout, but in this plebiscite everyone aged 18 or over must vote.
If ‘Reject’ wins, President Gabriel Boric has said that a new convention should be elected and the process repeated, while Warnken’s bloc have suggested a new process but with the inclusion of more experts.
Others have suggested reforming the unpopular current constitution in congress.
Should the proposal be rejected, the Pinochet-era document will remain in force while a solution is sought, and Chileans will brace for more protests.