SANTIAGO – Chileans will decide whether or not to re-write the country’s dictatorship-era constitution in a historic referendum on Sunday.
Some 14.8 million eligible voters are being called to polling stations across the South American nation amid strict health and safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and increased police presence.
Widely-regarded as the most important vote in Chile’s modern democratic era, the country’s current constitution was hammered out under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who came to power via a coup in 1973 and remained in office until 1990.
Before polling began on Sunday, the head of Chile’s electoral service Patricio Santamaria said: “Today we can be protagonists in a new page of history in our country that is yet to be written.”
The referendum, which was originally slated to take place in April but was delayed due to the pandemic, was agreed by the authorities as a bid to end last year’s widespread protests, which were driven by deep socio-economic inequalities in Chilean society. The unrest left around 30 dead and thousands injured.
Detractors of the constitution in its current form believe the text underpinned the vast privatization of basic services in Chile while its supporters claim it was the driving force behind the country’s economic growth and that socio-economic issues should be addressed with new laws rather than a referendum.
If the country chooses to change the constitution, voters will be asked to elect a commission to rewrite the text. It will either comprise 155 candidates from civil society or a mixed board with 172 citizens and lawmakers.
With tensions still simmering in Chile, some 50,000 soldiers and police officers have been mobilized to keep the peace during the voting process, which has also been affected by the pandemic.
“Hopefully the day goes calmly and that people vote in accordance with the rules,” Mauricio Torres, the head of a polling station, told EFE. “It’s an important day in deciding our new path.”
Chile’s COVID-19 caseload edged past 500,000 on Saturday and at least 13,892 people have died from the disease since the pandemic began, according to data from the John Hopkins University.
Polling stations will remain open for a 12-hour period, longer than usual, in order to avoid crowds and senior citizens will be given preference around midday.