SANTIAGO, Chile — Voters in Chile on Sunday could transform what has long been one of Latin America’s most conservative countries into one of the world’s most left-leaning societies.
In a single ballot, Chileans will decide whether they want legal abortion; universal public health care; gender parity in government; empowered labor unions; greater autonomy for Indigenous groups; rights for animals and nature; and constitutional rights to housing, education, retirement benefits, internet access, clean air, water, sanitation and care “from birth to death.”
It is perhaps the most important vote in the 204-year history of this South American nation of 19 million — a mandatory, nationwide plebiscite on a written-from-scratch constitution that, if adopted, would be one of the world’s most expansive and transformational national charters.
legalized divorce only in 2004, would suddenly have more rights enshrined in its constitution than any other nation. If they reject it, Chile would have little to show for what had once been seen as a remarkable political revolution.
the new administration of President Gabriel Boric, a tattooed, 36-year-old former student-protest leader who took office in March, but has quickly faced plummeting approval ratings amid rising inflation and crime. The constitution would enable Mr. Boric to carry out his leftist vision, while rejection could mire his term in more political fighting about what to do next.
A year ago, most Chileans would have bet that the country would embrace the proposed constitution. There has long been widespread discontent with the current constitution, which has roots in the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 until 1990.
In 2019, nationwide protests that left 30 people dead led Chile’s political leadership to grant a referendum on the constitution. A year later, nearly four out of five Chileans voted to replace it.
banned all forms of abortion until 2017, when it legalized the procedure only in cases of rape, an unviable fetus or a threat to the mother’s life.
some of the most expansive rights for Indigenous people anywhere, according to experts.
protesting in a Pikachu costume. Seventeen seats also went to Indigenous people.
Leftists won more than two-thirds of the convention’s seats, putting them in full control of the process since a two-thirds majority was necessary to add measures.
The motley crew deciding Chile’s future drew unwanted attention at times. There was the woman who gave a speech bare-chested and the man who left his camera on while showering during a remote vote. Many voters felt that the convention was not taking the process seriously.
“The behavior of the convention members pushed people away the most,” said Patricio Fernández, a leftist writer who was a convention member.
In recent months, Chileans have been bombarded with marketing from the “apruebo” and “rechazo” campaigns, some of it misleading, including claims that the constitution would allow abortion in the ninth month of pregnancy and ban homeownership.
On Thursday night, each side held closing rallies. Hundreds of thousands of “apruebo” supporters packed downtown Santiago and watched concerts by famous Chilean music acts, from rap to Andean folk.
“I’ve already lived, but I want deep change for the children of Chile,” said María Veloso, 57, who runs a food stand.
In a wealthier part of town, in a hillside amphitheater named after the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, a much smaller crowd gathered to mark their campaign to reject the leftist text. (Mr. Neruda, ironically, was a communist.) Hundreds of people waved Chilean flags and danced to an act impersonating the flamboyant Mexican singer Juan Gabriel.
“Here in Chile, they’re defending dogs more than babies,” said Sandra Cáceres Ríos, 50, an herb seller.
Regardless of the vote’s outcome, there is more political negotiating ahead. In the case of approval, Chile’s Congress, which is ideologically split, will be tasked with figuring out how to implement many of the changes. Lawmakers could try to significantly limit the scope or impact of some policies, such as abortion or Indigenous rights, by passing laws interpreting the constitution’s language in a narrow way.
Ultimately, the real effect of many provisions would probably be determined by the courts.
If the text is rejected, Mr. Boric, Chile’s president, has said that he would like to see a new convention draft another proposed charter.
He would, in other words, like to try it all again.
Pascale Bonnefoy and Ana Lankes contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile.
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — In Chile, a tattooed former student activist won the presidency with a pledge to oversee the most profound transformation of Chilean society in decades, widening the social safety net and shifting the tax burden to the wealthy.
In Peru, the son of poor farmers was propelled to victory on a vow to prioritize struggling families, feed the hungry and correct longstanding disparities in access to health care and education.
In Colombia, a former rebel and longtime legislator was elected the country’s first leftist president, promising to champion the rights of Indigenous, Black and poor Colombians, while building an economy that works for everyone.
election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and could culminate with a victory later this year by a leftist candidate in Brazil, leaving the region’s six largest economies run by leaders elected on leftist platforms.
A combination of forces have thrust this new group into power, including an anti-incumbent fervor driven by anger over chronic poverty and inequality, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and have deepened frustration among voters who have taken out their indignation on establishment candidates.
sliding backward, and instead of a boom, governments face pandemic-battered budgets, galloping inflation fed by the war in Ukraine, rising migration and increasingly dire economic and social consequences of climate change.
In Argentina, where the leftist Alberto Fernández took the reins from a right-wing president in late 2019, protesters have taken to the streets amid rising prices. Even larger protests erupted recently in Ecuador, threatening the government of one of the region’s few newly elected right-wing presidents, Guillermo Lasso.
“I don’t want to be apocalyptic about it,” said Cynthia Arnson, a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But there are times when you look at this that it feels like the perfect storm, the number of things hitting the region at once.”
Chile and Colombia, have shown people the power of the streets.
five of the six largest economies in the region will be run by leaders who campaigned from the left.
focused on austerity, is reducing spending.
What does link these leaders, however, are promises for sweeping change that in many instances are running headlong into difficult and growing challenges.
Ninety percent of poll respondents told the polling firm Cadem this month that they believed the country’s economy was stuck or going backward.
Like many neighbors in the region, Chile’s yearly inflation rate is the highest it’s been in more than a generation, at 11.5 percent, spurring a cost-of-living crisis.
In southern Chile, a land struggle between the Mapuche, the country’s largest Indigenous group, and the state has entered its deadliest phase in 20 years, leading Mr. Boric to reverse course on one of his campaign pledges and redeploy troops in the area.
Catalina Becerra, 37, a human resources manager from Antofagasta, in northern Chile, said that “like many people of my generation” she voted for Mr. Boric because Mr. Kast, “didn’t represent me in the slightest.”
according to the Institute of Peruvian Studies — is now subject to five criminal probes, has already faced two impeachment attempts and cycled through seven interior ministers.
40 percent of households now live on less than $100 a month, less than half of the monthly minimum wage — while inflation has hit nearly 10 percent.
Still, despite widespread financial anxiety, Mr. Petro’s actions as he prepares to assume office seem to have earned him some support.
He has made repeated calls for national consensus, met with his biggest political foe, the right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe and appointed a widely respected, relatively conservative and Yale-educated finance minister.
The moves may allow Mr. Petro to govern more successfully than say Mr. Boric, said Daniel García-Peña, a political scientist, and have calmed down some fears about how he will try to revive the economy.
But given how quickly the honeymoon period ended for others, Mr. Petro will have precious little time to start delivering relief.
“Petro must come through for his voters,” said Hernan Morantes, 30, a Petro supporter and environmental activist. “Social movements must be ready, so that when the government does not come through, or does not want to come through, we’re ready.”
Julie Turkewitz reported from Bogotá, Colombia, Mitra Taj from Lima, Peru and John Bartlett from Santiago, Chile. Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá.
SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans faced a stark choice between left and right on Sunday as they began voting in a presidential election that has the potential to make or break the effort to draft a new constitution.
The race was the nation’s most polarizing and acrimonious in recent history, presenting Chileans with sharply different visions on a range of issues, including the role of the state in the economy, pension reform, the rights of historically marginalized groups and public safety.
José Antonio Kast, 55, a far-right former lawmaker who has promised to crack down on crime and civil unrest, faces Gabriel Boric, 35, a leftist legislator who proposes raising taxes to combat entrenched inequality.
The stakes are higher than in most recent presidential contests because Chile is at a critical political crossroads. The incoming president stands to profoundly shape the effort to replace Chile’s Constitution, imposed in 1980 when the country was under military rule. Chileans voted overwhelmingly last year to draft a new one.
campaigned vigorously against establishing a constitutional convention, whose members Chileans elected in May. The body is tasked with drafting a new charter that voters will approve or reject in a direct vote next September.
Members of the convention see Mr. Kast’s rise as an existential threat to their work, fearing he could marshal the resources and the bully pulpit of the presidency to persuade voters to reject the revised constitution.
“There’s so much at stake,” said Patricia Politzer, a member of the convention from Santiago. “The president has enormous power and he could use the full backing of the state to campaign against the new constitution.”
Recent polls have suggested Mr. Boric has a slight edge, although Mr. Kast won the most votes during the first round of voting last month.
Mr. Boric has referred to his rival as a fascist and has assailed several of his plans, which include expanding the prison system and empowering the security forces to more forcefully crack down on Indigenous challenges to land rights in the south of the country.
Mr. Kast has told voters a Boric presidency would destroy the foundation that has made Chile’s economy one of the best performing in the region and would likely put the nation on a path toward becoming a failed state like Venezuela.
“This has been a campaign dominated by fear, to a degree we’ve never seen before,” said Claudia Heiss, a political science professor at the University of Chile. “That can do damage in the long run because it deteriorates the political climate.”
Mr. Boric and Mr. Kast each found traction with voters who had become fed up with the center-left and center-right political factions that have traded power in Chile in recent decades. The conservative incumbent, Sebastián Piñera, has seen his approval ratings plummet below 20 percent over the past two years.
Mr. Boric got his start in politics as a prominent organizer of the large student demonstrations in 2011 that persuaded the government to grant low-income students tuition-free education. He was first elected to congress in 2014.
A native of Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost province, Mr. Boric made taking bold steps to curb global warming a core promise of his campaign. This included a politically risky proposal to raise taxes on fuel.
Mr. Boric, who has tattoos and dislikes wearing ties, has spoken publicly about being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition for which he was briefly hospitalized in 2018.
In the wake of the sometimes violent street protests and political turmoil set off by a hike in subway fares in October 2019, he vowed to turn a litany of grievances that had been building over generations into an overhaul of public policy. Mr. Boric said it was necessary to raise taxes on corporations and the ultrarich in order to expand the social safety net and create a more egalitarian society.
“Today, many older people are working themselves to death after backbreaking labor all their lives,” he said during the race’s final debate, promising to create a system of more generous pensions. “That is unfair.”
Mr. Kast, the son of German immigrants, served as a federal lawmaker from 2002 to 2018. A father of nine, he has been a vocal opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage. His national profile rose during the 2017 presidential race, when he won nearly 8 percent of the vote.
Mr. Kast has called his rival’s proposed expansion of spending reckless, saying what Chile needs is a far leaner, more efficient state rather than an expanded support system. During his campaign’s closing speech on Thursday, Mr. Kast warned that electing his rival would deepen unrest and stoke violence.
Mr. Kast invoked the “poverty that has dragged down Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba” as a cautionary tale. “People flee from there because dictatorship, narco-dictatorship, only brings poverty and misery,” he said.
That message, a throwback to Cold War language, has found resonance among voters like Claudio Bruce, 55, who lost his job during the pandemic.
“In Chile we can’t afford to fall into those types of political regimes because it would be very difficult to bounce back from that,” he said. “We’re at a very dangerous crossroads for our children, for our future.”
Antonia Vera, a recent high school graduate who has been campaigning for Mr. Boric, said she saw electing him as the only means to turn a grass-roots movement for a fairer, more prosperous nation into reality.
“When he speaks about hope, he’s speaking about the long-term future, a movement that started brewing many years ago and exploded in 2019,” she said.
The new president will struggle to carry out sweeping changes any time soon, said Claudio Fuentes, a political science professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago, noting the evenly divided incoming congress.
“The probability of making good on their campaign plans is low,” he said. “It’s a scenario in which it will be hard to push reforms through.”
Pascale Bonnefoy reported from Santiago and Ernesto Londoño from Rio de Janeiro.