Voting is no longer compulsory in Chile, and turnout reached only 50% for the 2018 election of the country’s billionaire president, Sebastian Pinera.

Chileans flocked to the polls Sunday in a referendum on whether to change a dictatorship-era constitution seen as underpinning the nation’s glaring inequalities.

In long, orderly lines across Santiago and in cities around the country, masked voters shuffled patiently towards polling stations to participate in a historic referendum many hoped would finally bury the constitution left by the 1973-1990 regime of Augusto Pinochet.

“People voting, all over, and so many young people. You didn’t see them voting in the presidential election, but you see them today,” said taxi driver Jose Gallardo, who ferried people to polling stations from early morning.

Voting is no longer compulsory in Chile, and turnout reached only 50 percent for the 2018 election of the country’s billionaire president, Sebastian Pinera.

Pinera called on Chileans to turn out in numbers after he cast his ballot early in the upmarket Las Condes area of the capital.

“Tonight when we learn the results, whatever the outcome may be, let’s respect people’s choice and make a firm and clear stand for democracy and not anarchy, for peace and not violence, for unity and not division,” he said.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon in clashes with around 50 stone-throwing demonstrators in Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the social protests, in the late afternoon.

The vote comes a year to the day after more than one million people thronged downtown Santiago amidst a wave of social unrest that left 30 people dead and thousands wounded.

The sheer size of the October 25 march demonstrated the breadth of social discontent and proved a tipping point in demonstrators’ demands for a referendum.

Within weeks, Pinera had agreed to initiate a process to draft a new constitution, beginning with a referendum to decide the fate of the current text.

Pinera, 70, has not come out publicly for either side in the campaign, and his conservative coalition is divided on the issue.

“I am full of hope that things will change and that we will bring a radical turnaround in this country,” said Romina Nunez, 42, a poll organizer at the National Stadium in Santiago, the country’s biggest polling center.

Thousands were voting at the vast stadium, which achieved infamy as a detention center where military regime opponents were tortured.

Elias Perez, a 39-year-old psychologist, said he wanted to give the place another meaning as he prepared to vote for change in a place rich with symbolism.

“To be able to exercise the right to vote in a space of profound pain, where there were systematic violations of the human rights of many fellow Chileans, and be able to generate change in this same space — is a symbolic way of paying honor and tribute to all those who are no longer with us,” he said.

What may change

Demand for a new constitution had been a recurring theme of the protests, set off by a hike in public transport fares. They rapidly turned into widespread demonstrations against social and economic inequalities — encompassing health, education and pensions — inherited from Pinochet’s rule.

For those supporting change, mainly the leftist opposition parties, a new charter would allow a fairer social order to replace the persistent inequalities enshrined in the current charter.

Critics say the constitution is an obstacle to meaningful social reforms, and a new one is necessary to provide more equitable access to private health care, education and pension systems.

The new constitution would expand the role of the state in providing a welfare safety net, ensuring basic rights to health, education, water distribution and pensions.

Many conservatives, however, say the constitution has been key to Chile’s decades of economic growth and stability and a greater state role would add pressure on an economy struggling to emerge from the Covid-19 health crisis.

They say their fears have been fueled by the violence that accompanied the protests.

Support for new constitution

Chileans are asked two questions on the ballot papers: to approve or reject a new constitution, and if necessary, what kind of body should draft it — a mixed assembly composed equally of lawmakers and citizens, or a 155-member convention made up entirely of citizens.

Opinion polls show more than 70 percent support a new constitution, with just 17 percent voting for rejection.

Polls also indicate similar backing for a constituent all-citizen convention, to be elected in April 2021.

Their draft would be put to another referendum in 2022.

Strict coronavirus protocols were in place for the vote. Voters had their hands sprayed with gel by marshalls as they entered polling stations, and tables, chairs and other furniture inside had been disinfected.

Chile surpassed 500,000 Covid-19 cases on Saturday, with nearly 14,000 deaths.

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