SANTIAGO, CHILE - Amid a year of contagion and turmoil, Chileans turned out Sunday to vote on whether to draft a new constitution for their nation to replace guiding principles imposed four decades ago under a military dictatorship, and early returns gave the "yes" forces a big lead.
The country's conservative government agreed with the center-left opposition to allow the plebiscite after the outbreak of vast street protests that erupted a year ago in frustration over inequality in pensions, education and health care in what has long been one of South America's most developed nations.
The Electoral Service said Sunday evening that of the first 1.3 million ballots counted, 77.5% favored a new charter and less than 22.5% were opposed. Among the 60,000 Chileans living abroad who voted in 65 nations, the vote was 86% for a new constitution and 13% against, officials said. About 15 million Chileans were eligible to vote.
Recent polls indicated heavy backing for a new constitution despite opposition from conservative groups., and center-right President Sebastian Pinera said after voting that he assumed the measure would be approved.
"I believe the immense majority of Chileans want to change, modify our constitution," he said.
If the measure is approved, a special convention would begin drafting a new constitution that would be submitted to voters in mid-2022.
Chile's current constitution was drafted by the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and was sent to voters at a time where political parties had been banned and the country was subject to heavy censorship.
It was approved by a 66%-30% margin in a 1980 plebiscite, but critics say many voters were cowed into acceptance by a regime that had arrested, tortured and killed thousands of suspected leftist opponents following the overthrow of an elected socialist government.
"I think that many people went to vote out of fear," said political scientist Claudio Fuentes, who wrote a book about that plebiscite titled, "The Fraud."
"The current constitution has a flaw of origin, which is that it was created during the military dictatorship in an undemocratic process," said Monica Salinero, a 40-year-old sociologist who supports drafting a new charter.
The free-market principles embodied in that document led to a booming economy that continued after the return to democracy in 1990, but not all Chileans shared.
A minority was able to take advantage of good, privatized education, health and social security services, while others were forced to rely on sometimes meager public alternatives. Public pensions for the poorest are just over $200 a month, roughly half the minimum wage.
Luisa Fuentes Rivera, a 59-year-old food vendor, said hopes that "with a new constitution we will have better work, health, pensions and a better quality of life for older people, and a better education."
But historian Felipe Navarrete warned, "It's important to say that the constitution won't resolve the concrete problems. It will determine which state we want to solve the problems."
Claudia Heiss, head of the political science department at the University of Chile, said it would send a signal about people's desires for change, and for a sort of politics that would "allow greater inclusion of sectors that have been marginalized from politics."
Conservative groups fear the revamp could go too far, and endanger parts of the constitution that have helped the country prosper.
"The people have demonstrated saying they want better pensions, better health, better education. and the response of the political class" is a process that won't solve the problems and will open a period of uncertainty," said Felipe Lyon, 28-year-old lawyer and spokesman for the group "No, Thanks" that opposes the change.
The decision to allow the vote came after hundreds of thousands of Chileans repeatedly took to the streets in protests that often turned violent.
The vote was initially scheduled for April, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has killed some 13,800 Chileans, with more than 500,000 people infected by the new coronavirus.
Officials trying to ensure voters felt safe barred infected persons or those close to them from the polls, and long lines formed at voting places. Voters had to wear masks - dipping them only briefly for identification purposes - and brought their own pencils.
The manner of drafting a new constitution was also on the ballot. Voters were choosing between a body of 155 citizens who would be elected just for that purpose in April, or a somewhat larger convention split equally between elected delegates and members of Congress.