‘Historic’: Chile votes for who will draft new constitution

Voter turnout has been low, but Chileans say they hope to participate in ‘shaping future’ of the country.

According to the Electoral Service Board, 20 percent of Chile’s 14 million eligible voters cast ballots on Saturday, the first of two days of voting [Odette Magnet/Al Jazeera]

Santiago, Chile – Maribel Mora Curriao, a Mapuche poet who lives in the Chilean capital, was excited to cast a ballot on Sunday in what she described as a “historic election for the Mapuche people”.

Curriao flew to Freire, a small town in southern Chile, to vote – and be closer to her roots.

“We are voting with pride and identity for the first time. We have taken this process very seriously and we are very much aware that this is a unique opportunity not only for us but for the Chilean people as a whole,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Whatever happens from now on will not take place without the Mapuche communities. It’s now or never.”

Chileans began voting on Saturday in a two-day election for mayors, governors and city councillors across the South American nation.

The voters are also selecting 155 representatives to make up a Constitutional Convention tasked with drafting a new constitution to replace the current one, which was written in the 1980s under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

“Everything is under control,” said Andres Tagle, president of the Electoral Service Board, about the vote, the results of which are expected to be released late on Sunday night.

For the first time in Chile’s history, the ballot boxes were sealed and kept inside the voting sites on Saturday night. Election officials guarded the sealed ballot boxes at 2,700 polling stations across the country, including schools and churches, and the Ministry of Defence sent more than 23,000 troops to protect them as an additional security measure.

“If there is a fraud attempt, we will find out,” Tagle said.

On Saturday, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera encouraged people to cast their ballots, saying “to vote is to honour democracy and our society”. He tweeted: “Today the voice of the people must be heard in this historic election.”

The representatives chosen to join the Constitutional Convention will have nine months, with a possible three-month extension, to write Chile’s new constitution. It will then be submitted to voters in a plebiscite next year, and voting will be mandatory.

Manriquez, 83, said voting is a way for her to participate in shaping her country’s future [Odette Magnet/Al Jazeera]

Monica Manriquez, 83, was the first to cast her ballot at the Luis Arrieta Cañas elementary school in Santiago’s Peñalolen County. It was 8:30am local time and very few people were around.

“I want to participate in any way I can in the shaping of the future of our country,” Manriquez told Al Jazeera. “Elections define in a significant way the destiny of a nation.”

Turnout was low on both days, particularly in working class neighborhoods. According to the Electoral Service Board, 20 percent of Chile’s 14 million eligible voters – some three million people – cast ballots on Saturday.

Political analysts said the low turnout was partly due to a lack of information and the COVID-19 pandemic. Chile has reported more than 27,800 coronavirus-related deaths and more than 1.28 million cases to date.

Although government officials have assured the public that voting would take place in safe conditions amid the pandemic, on Saturday the country’s health minister urged the public to “vote and go home”.

According to election experts, voter participation must reach the same level as last year’s October plebiscite, when Chileans voted 78 percent in favour of rewriting the constitution. About 51 percent of Chileans participated in that process.

Luna Follegati, a historian and feminist, voted on Sunday morning and stressed the importance of having a voice in the drafting of the new constitution.

“Without feminism, there is no social transformation,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Today, our feminist demands must be included when it comes to writing a new constitution. If not, we shall continue with a poor democracy with a political system that goes against women’s rights and freedom. The feminist movement has been clear in recent times: we will not return to silence.”

Source: Al Jazeera