A fire-eater performs in Santiago’s Plaza Italia after Chileans voted to replace the constitution written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet © AP

Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new constitution on Sunday in a referendum aimed at satisfying a central demand of the social protests that rocked the South American country last year.

With 96 per cent of the vote counted, 78 per cent said they were in favour of a new constitution, which will replace the charter that many Chileans see as illegitimate owing to its origins in the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

At the same time, 79 per cent backed electing a constituent assembly to draw up the new document, as opposed to a commission split equally between newly elected members and members of congress. The vote will take place next April, ahead of presidential elections in November.

The result was met with jubilation in public spaces across Chile on Sunday night, especially in Plaza Italia in Santiago, which was the centre of often violent demonstrations last year.

“This is a triumph for all Chileans who love democracy, unity and peace,” said President Sebastián Piñera.

Although some observers expressed disappointment that only about 50 per cent of the electorate voted, the emphatic result clears the way for a constitution that Chileans hope will do more to protect human rights and social welfare. They also believe a new charter will dilute the concentration of power in discredited elites and private sector control over the economy.

Many of the protesters that took to the streets last year amid anger over rising prices, inequality, meagre pensions and poor public services want to put an end to “neoliberalism” in Chile and move towards a more social democratic model. But analysts said there was no widespread demand for more radical solutions such as abolishing capitalism or private property rights, as some feared.

Nevertheless, critics said that the two-year process of drawing up the constitution would lead to prolonged uncertainty that would discourage investment, while the new charter could also generate greater spending pressure to improve public services. That threatened to undermine Chile’s fiscal discipline and orthodox economic policy, they said, while boosting debt from relatively low levels.

This month, Fitch Ratings downgraded Chile’s sovereign debt from A to A-, arguing that public finances had been damaged by demands to increase social spending after the 2019 protests and the economic downturn caused by Covid-19.

Debt would keep rising, according to the rating agency, given the challenges to reining in spending amid social pressures and lower growth prospects. The economy is expected to contract 5.8 per cent this year, largely because of Chile’s lockdown because of the pandemic.

The referendum had initially been scheduled for April, but was postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.


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