Chileans head to polls to pick architects of new constitution

A woman casts her vote in the elections for governors, mayors, councillors and constitutional assembly members to draft a new constitution to replace Chile's charter, in Santiago, Chile May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Pablo Sanhueza

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chileans began to vote on Saturday in a mega-election in which they will pick mayors, governors, councillors and critically, the 155 men and women who will draft the country's next constitution.

Changing the constitution was a central demand to emerge from fierce social protests that erupted over inequality and elitism in October 2019.

More than 7.5 million people voted in last year's plebiscite to tear up the current constitution which was drafted in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. and by mid-morning, voters were arriving in a subdued but steady stream to mark their preference on four differently-coloured ballot papers.

In the capital Santiago's eastern suburb of Las Condes, 26-year-old lawyer Aranza Escobar Riveros told Reuters Chile needed "radical change."

"I want this to become a country where people can live with dignity," she said.

In nearby Lo Barnechea, Javiera Espinoza, 28, a jewelry seller, said her parents were "ultra-right wing" but she had voted for a new charter in a referendum last October.

"I feel scared, I don't want us to turn out like Venezuela but you can see changes are needed, to education and the health service," she said.

Citizens have a full weekend to cast their votes as the authorities seek to avoid crowds gathering, exacerbating a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that still has the country in its grip.

Swathes of Chile remain under strict lockdown. Health Minister Enrique Paris said the country's high vaccination rate - 49% of the target population has received two doses - meant voting was safe but urged people to head home straight afterwards.

Chile's centre-right government is hoping for at least seven million people from the 19 million-strong population to participate in this weekend's election.

President Sebastian Pinera's Chile Vamos coalition is hoping for the candidates it has fielded to draft the constitution to win at least a third of seats to shield Chile's free-market model from any drastic changes which would require at least two thirds' approval.

However, uncertainty hangs over even that goal because Pinera and the government's popularity has sunk amid COVID-related poverty and joblessness and its attempts to block citizens from drawing down from their privately-held pensions.

Pinera told reporters as he voted in the capital Santiago on Saturday morning that he wanted "a good result for the country, and for Chile Vamos."

"This will mark the paths our country takes for decades to come," he said.

(Reporting by Aislinn Laing and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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