Sep 1, 2022 - World

Misinformation swirls as Chileans prepare to vote on new constitution

A man in a wheelchair directs two people standing outside in Chile
A Santiago resident leafs through a handout copy of Chile’s new draft constitution. Photo: Marcelo Hernández/Getty Images

Chileans once broadly supported the idea of a new constitution, but the one going to a referendum this Sunday faces an uphill battle after a misinformation campaign sowed confusion about it, experts say.

Why it matters: The new constitutional proposal, which tackles climate change and social issues like abortion, is an experiment unlike any in the recent history of the Americas. But polls show diminishing support.

  • It was drafted by mostly non-politicians and independents elected to a special assembly, which had a 50-50 gender split and representation from Indigenous communities.

The big picture : The draft, championed by leftist President Gabriel Boric, the youngest president in Chilean history, would make Chile the first nation in the hemisphere to enshrine abortion rights in its constitution.

  • It would also set up a national health care system, recognize access to drinkable water as a human right and give Indigenous tribes greater sovereignty.
  • The draft would end the statute of limitations on human rights violations committed during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and ensure reparations.

State of play: The latest polls show 46% will vote to reject and 37% to approve the new constitution, while 17% remain undecided.

Misinformation may have played a big part in diminished support for the proposal.

  • Several false statements about what's included in the draft constitution went viral online, including a claim that the "right to housing" article would ban people from owning private property and another claim that the constitution would allow people to get abortions nine months into pregnancy.
  • At the same time, economic stresses as inflation runs rampant have tempered the idea of revamping health and pension systems, despite economists saying the new constitution would be overall beneficial, experts tell Axios Latino.
  • “I think people are afraid of the uncertainty, and that some feel their lives are hard but they might not benefit the same as groups, like women and Indigenous communities, that would gain more rights than they have historically had,”said Verónica Undurraga, constitutional expert and a law professor at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez.

It's unclear what happens next if the draft is rejected.

  • If it's approved, Boric's government has said Congress will amend some of the more vague and controversial parts of the constitution.

What they’re saying: “I fear that (a vote against the draft) will be a barrier that could be like putting a tight lid on a pot, and the general unrest that led us here will boil over,” says Undurraga. Approval “at least creates channels to manage these changes.”

  • She added that most details on how to implement the new social rights and other provisions “are left to Congress to legislate on later. So the constitution is just a first step” regardless.

Background: Chile’s current constitution dates to 1980, when Pinochet was in power. It privatized health, pension and education systems, which critics say fostered a highly unequal society despite the country’s wealth.

Of note: Voting in the referendum is mandatory for everyone over 18, with fines up to $200 for those who don’t go to the polls.

  • Some Chileans have said they will void their own ballots.
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