Chilean streets filled on Sunday for the first time since the start of the coronavirus outbreak as millions of people turned out to vote on whether to get rid of the country’s Pinochet-era constitution in favour of a fresh charter drafted by citizens.
A new constitution was a key demand of fierce anti-government protests that erupted last year over inequality and elitism in one of Latin America’s most advanced economies, and have simmered ever since.
Voting began at 8am and by midday there were long queues outside polling stations. Soldiers controlled entry and enforced strict sanitary measures.
Expectations for the vote are high. Maria Luz Navarette, 71, a former government worker now struggling to get by on her payout from Chile’s privately run and much criticised pensions system, travelled by metro to vote in the central station of the capital Santiago.
“I am preparing to go out to celebrate this evening. I think many people will vote in favour of change,” she said. “Everything must change. Social security, culture, citizen participation, health ... there is another way of living a more communal life.”
Alejandra, 31, a businesswoman in retail, voted to reject a new charter in Santiago’s upmarket neighbourhood of Vitacura.
She said last year’s social unrest and the pandemic had already taken their toll on her company. “The truth is that I feel that another blow is going to bury the business,” she added.
“I want changes but I would like them to be gradual. Chile is a small country, we cannot make such dramatic changes without affecting the economy.”
More than 14.8 million people are eligible to vote although individuals with Covid-19 have been told to stay away on threat of arrest.
Chileans can decide whether to approve or reject a new constitution and whether it should be drafted by a specially elected citizens’ body or a mix of citizens and lawmakers.
The winning camp needs a simple majority. Opinion polls suggest a new charter will be approved by a significant margin.
Casting his vote early in the morning, Chile’s centre-right president, Sebastián Piñera appealed for people of all persuasions to turn out.
Jaime Bellolio, a government spokesman, said at midday that polling stations had registered “high levels of interest”.
“Progress is looking good,” he said. “This is being done around the country calmly and securely according to our democratic traditions.”
Chileans must wear masks by law outside their homes, and voters have been told to bring their own pens. Voting stations have been sprayed with cleaning solutions containing nano-copper particles, which scientists say are particularly inhospitable to the coronavirus.
The current constitution was drafted by the dictator Augusto Pinochet’s close adviser Jaime Guzmán in 1980, and has only been tweaked by successive governments to reduce military and executive power.