Chilean streets filled for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak as millions of people turned out to vote on whether to tear up its Pinochet-era constitution in favour of a fresh charter drafted by citizens.

Supporters of the
Supporters of the "I Approve" option react on a new Chilean constitution in Valparaiso, Chile, October 25, 2020. (Reuters)

Chile has voted to scrap the Constitution they inherited from General Augusto Pinochet's regime and draft a new one.

"It is a triumph of the people and democracy," said President Sebastian Pinera in a TV broadcast as the “approve” option began taking the lead early in the afternoon.

With 94 percent of the votes counted, more than 78 percent of Chileans decided by a landslide to replace the Magna Carta.

Around 21 percent chose to maintain the current document, which dates back to the government of Augusto Pinochet, accused of instilling fear and using violence, torture and repression in a grim chapter of Chile’s history.

In long, orderly lines across Santiago and in cities around the country, masked voters shuffled patiently towards polling stations on Sunday 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.

READ MORE: Chile to vote in referendum over its dictatorship-era constitution

'Lest respect people's choice'

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 s aid.

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 25 October 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 organiser at the National Stadium in Santiago, the country's biggest polling centre.

Thousands were voting at the vast stadium, which achieved infamy as a detention center where 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 compatriots, and to be able to generate change in this same space is a symbolic way of paying honour and tribute to all those who are no longer with us," he said.

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Covid measures

Polling stations, which opened at 1100 GMT will be kept open for 12 hours, longer than usual to avoid overcrowding due to the coronavirus pandemic which has hit Chile hard.

Voters had their hands sprayed with gel by marshalls as they entered polling stations and tables, chairs and other furniture inside have been disinfected.

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

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.

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.

Support for new constitution

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.

"A first aim of this constitutional process is to leave behind the shadow of Pinochet's dictatorship , in order to draw up a new constitution without the original sin of having been established under the use of force," said Marcelo Mella, a political scientist at the University of Santiago.

Rejectionists, including conservative lawmakers, warn that the constitutional process could undermine the decades of economic stability in the copper-rich country bolstered by the existing constitution, and deter foreign investment.

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

Source: TRTWorld and agencies