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Chile rejects its new constitution

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Chile, a special assembly has spent the past two years writing a new constitution, and it was supposed to replace the current one that dates back to the country's military dictatorship. But yesterday, voters soundly rejected the new constitution in a referendum and then celebrated in the streets of Santiago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING, CHEERING)

MARTIN: NPR's John Otis is just back from a reporting trip to Chile, and he joins us now. Good morning, John.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Good morning. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So people clearly excited. Tell us what this rejection means.

OTIS: Well, the rejection means a huge blow for Chile's president, Gabriel Boric. He was a really big supporter of this new constitution. But nearly 62% of Chileans voted against it, compared to just 38% in favor. In fact, the outcome became so clear so quickly that the campaign for approval conceded defeat less than two hours after the polls closed.

MARTIN: Wow. I mean, they clearly didn't have the right political temperature on how this was going to go over with voters. Why was it so controversial, this new constitution?

OTIS: You know, some have called it the world's most progressive constitution. For example, it would have vastly expanded rights for Indigenous groups and created more protections for the environment. It would have made - it would have mandated universal health care, as well as the right to decent housing, education and pensions, and it calls for gender parity in government and legalized abortion. But Chile is actually quite a conservative place. Married couples couldn't even get divorced in Chile until 2004.

Some of this new constitution might have hurt the economy because, for example, stricter environmental rules might have put the brakes on the copper and lithium mining industries. It would have meant higher taxes to pay for a lot of these new government benefits included in the constitution. There was also a disinformation campaign that spread lies about it. And finally, you know, the best constitutions are usually short and to the point, but this one was really long. It had 388 articles, and it was - just ended up being too much for voters to digest.

MARTIN: Yeah. So if you could just step back for a moment, explain what was behind this movement to draft a new constitution in the first place?

OTIS: Well, there were two reasons. First, anti-government protests back in 2019 nearly brought down Chile's government. To calm the waters and to address protesters' concerns about poverty and inequality, a special assembly began writing a new constitution. The other reason is that the current one was written back in 1980. That's when dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile. Democracy was restored in 1990. And when most countries go through such momentous political changes, they write new rules of the game, new governing guidelines, but Chile never really got around to that until now.

MARTIN: So, I mean, what happens? Is the effort to change the constitution dead at this point?

OTIS: It's not dead. President Boric went on Chilean TV last night and claimed that the effort to forge a new constitution isn't over. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GABRIEL BORIC: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: So Boric is saying here that he plans to meet with Congress and civil society in the coming days to try to start this process all over again. This was expected because in spite of last night's rejection, polls show that Chileans don't like their Pinochet-era constitution either. But Boric has said whoever drafts the next version of the constitution, they're going to have to come up with something that unites Chileans rather than divides them, like this one did.

MARTIN: John Otis reporting for NPR. Thanks, John.

OTIS: Thanks a lot for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.