Chileans emphatically rejected a proposed new constitution to replace the one adopted during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, partial results showed on Sunday, in a result that exceeded the expectations of the conservative opposition.
With more than 88 percent of votes counted, the reject camp led with 62 percent compared to just 38 percent for those in favour.
The result is a far greater margin of victory than was predicted by opinion polls, which had suggested the constitution would be rejected by up to 10 percentage points.
More than 15 million people were eligible to vote in the compulsory election, with polling stations opening at 8am local time (1200 GMT) and closing 10 hours later.
Social upheaval that began in 2019 provided the impulse to overhaul the constitution, but the 388-article draft proved controversial and often confusing for voters.
The new constitution aimed to build a more welfare-based society, boost Indigenous rights and legalise abortion.
"It's a defeat for the refounding of Chile," said Javier Macaya, president of the conservative UDI party, surrounded by people celebrating the constitution's defeat.
In October 2019, protests sprung up mostly in the capital led by students initially angered by a proposed metro fare hike.
Those demonstrations spiralled into wider discontent with the country's neoliberal economic system as well as growing inequality.
Leftist President Gabriel Boric, who supported the new text, had called for national unity whatever the outcome as he voted in Punta Arenas.
Among the chief concerns of opponents was the prominence given to the country's Indigenous peoples, who make up close to 13 percent of the 19 million-strong population.
Proposals to enshrine reproductive rights and protect the environment as well as natural resources such as water, which some say is exploited by private mining companies, had also garnered much attention.
The new constitution would have overhauled Chile's government, replacing the Senate with a less powerful "chamber of regions," and requiring women to hold at least half of positions in public institutions.
"Here people are more in favour of rejection," said Alfredo Tolosa, 47, a woodworker in Tucapel, a small town in the southern Bíobío region.
"They think it's the best path because they are afraid of change. They have something to eat, they have work and they think they would lose those," he told AFP.
Some feared the new text would generate instability and uncertainty, which could then harm the economy.
Sociologist Marta Lagos called it a "tremendous victory for reject" and a "resounding failure" for the approve camp.
"No one expected such a gap of over 20 percentage points," she wrote on Twitter.
Those in favour of the new constitution believed it would have prompted changes in a conservative country marked by social and ethnic tensions and lay the foundation for a more egalitarian society.
They say the current constitution gives private enterprise free rein over crucial industries and creates a fertile breeding ground for the rich to prosper and the poor to struggle.
Although the 1980 constitution has undergone several reforms since it was adopted, it retains the stigma of having been introduced during a dictatorship.
Sunday's poll was the third time in just two years that Chileans have voted on the referendum, having already elected to rewrite the constitution and then elected the representatives to do so.
The new text was drawn up by a constitutional convention made up of 154 members – mostly with no political affiliation – split equally between men and women and with 17 places reserved for Indigenous people.
The resulting proposal recognised 11 Indigenous peoples and offered them greater autonomy, particularly on judicial issues.
Some critics accused the authors of trying to turn the traditionally marginalised Indigenous people into a higher class of citizens.
by Paulina Abramovich & Paula Bustamante, AFP