Chileans urged to make voices heard on rewriting of constitution

A woman waits to vote during local and constitutional convention elections, in Valparaiso, Chile May 16, 2021. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chileans were urged on Sunday to follow through on their call for a new constitution as voting to pick the architects of the charter entered a second day amid concerns about low turn-out, particularly in the country's more marginalized areas.

Observers around the South American nation reported a slow start in most polling stations on Sunday, a trend that was particularly marked in the poorest areas of the capital Santiago and in the north of the country, according to official data.

Fourteen million people are eligible to pick the 155 people who will draft the new constitution and the government is hoping for turnout of 7 million.

Those chosen will spend a maximum of 12 months crafting the new text, with a two-thirds majority required for each key decision, forcing delegates to form alliances. Chileans will then vote on the final product. If it fails, the country will revert to the current text and the process ends.

More than 7.5 million people turned out in October last year and voted by 78% to tear up the present constitution drafted during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Just over 3 million people, or 20.4% of the electorate, voted on Saturday, according to the country's Servel electoral service, with the turnout highest in the three Santiago suburbs which voted to reject a change to the constitution.

The call for a new constitution emerged from social unrest over inequality that tore through Chile, the world's largest producer of copper, in October 2019 and still simmers to this day amid economic hardship wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and what many perceive to be patchy government support.

Maria Emilia, 71, a polling station volunteer in the working class Santiago suburb of La Pintana, issued a plea for youthful voters to cement their call for a new Chile.

"I have been here since 8 a.m. and I am so sad to have only seen one young person come," she said in a video posted on social media. "Please guys, wake up. You fought so hard to have a new constitution."

Luz Donaire, 65, a small business owner in neighboring Puente Alto, said she was voting for the sake of future generations. "My expectations are high. I want more equality for my grandchildren."

Analysts said turnout on Saturday could have been affected by a lack of trust that votes cast on the first day would be safe in polling stations overnight, and could still pick up on Sunday, Chile's traditional day for voting.

Claudia Heiss, an investigator for Chile's Center of Conflict and Social Cohesion Studies, said last year's plebiscite had offered a clearer choice of yes or no whereas the latest poll involved choosing individuals, many of them with political links. That could have generated fresh mistrust, particularly among young voters, she said.

Camila Rojas, 20, voted for the first time in Chile's seaside city of Valparaiso and issued a stern call to her generation. "I guess people got demotivated, felt like nothing is going to change," she said. "But change starts with you - if you don't vote then nothing is going to change."

(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Additional reporting Pablo Sanhueza in Santiago and Rodrigo Garrido in Valparaiso; Editing by Paul Simao)

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