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Chile Prepares for Yes-or-No Vote That Could Send Pinochet Packing

September 18, 1988|Abraham F. Lowenthal | Abraham F. Lowenthal, USC professor of international relations, is executive director of Inter-American Dialogue, a conclave of leading Western Hemisphere citizens

WASHINGTON — On Oct. 5, Chileans confront a major decision--one that could open the way toward significant national progress in the 1990s, or plunge the country into a prolonged downturn. On that date, in a plebiscite mandated by the country's 1980 constitution, voters will approve or reject the bid of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who has ruled since 1973, to be president for eight more years.

The plebiscite was originally designed to legitimize Pinochet's reign, but the Chilean opposition has decided to challenge the dictator's authority while playing by his rules.

It is not clear whether Pinochet's opponents will have the security and facilities required to campaign freely throughout the country. What is clear is that millions of Chileans of different perspectives want an opportunity to address the nation's future. Almost 7.5 million people--some 90% of the potential electorate--have registered to vote, despite cumbersome and time-consuming procedures.

The Pinochet regime has considerable financial and tactical advantages in its campaign for a yes-vote, including pork-barreling, local patronage and the government's virtual media monopoly--especially television. But the opposition is being given enough scope, including limited free TV access, to establish the plebiscite's national and international legitimacy, barring massive fraud.

Most opposition leaders contend that the nation's democratic political experience, the relevant legal provisions (including party observers at each polling station) and the glare of international publicity should assure a reasonably honest count. Few Chileans dismiss the plebiscite as a government-run charade.

Virtually all observers expect a close vote. A number of polls show the nays leading by a considerable margin in Santiago, the capital, with a very slight advantage in the country as a whole. But an unusual number of those interviewed--as many as 33% in some polls--say they are undecided or will not answer. No one can be sure whether this large bloc is genuinely ambivalent or simply wary of being recorded.

The race is tight enough to give both the government and the opposition every incentive to tailor their appeals to what the Chilean public wants: security, democracy, the protection of human rights and economic prosperity.

Considering how polarized Chile has been, the most striking thing about the current campaign is the similarity between the arguments advanced by the government and the opposition.

The authoritarian regime, having tarnished Chile's democratic traditions for 15 years, has chosen now to affirm its commitment to democracy. Some of its television spots show the new Congress building under construction (Congress was shut down in 1973, when Pinochet led the overthrow of Salvador Allende's socialist government), and all of them, in Orwellian fashion, call for "Democracia, Si."

The opposition, for its part, has grudgingly had to acknowledge that the Chilean economy is not doing badly, and to reassure the private sector and the broad public that private property will be respected in a post-Pinochet Chile. The opposition has also had to send signals (albeit vague and inconclusive) that there will not be wholesale prosecution of military officers for human-rights violations, and has played down the personal charisma of its leaders. Architects of the opposition campaign understand that Chileans are uncertain about what a triumph of the nays will bring; they are trying, therefore, to present a moderate and consensual program.

One way or another, the plebiscite is bound to change the Chilean equation fundamentally. The regime's ingenious constitutional engineering could boomerang, for the massive political energy mobilized by the plebiscite will not disappear the day after the vote; it will be a national reality, shaping the next stage of Chile's history.

Regardless of plebiscite results, further negotiations are likely. The key issue will be whether and how the 1980 constitution can be modified; that document presupposes a continuing authoritarian regime, with Pinochet staying on as army chief for eight years and as senator for life, and with the military-dominated National Security Council playing a powerful political role. Important questions include how the armed forces hierarchy will be treated; what parties will be permitted to compete in Chilean electoral politics, and what socioeconomic program will be adopted.

Post-plebiscite bargaining will be shaped by the vote count and six other factors: Pinochet's personal response to the vote; the opposition's capacity to mobilize the public without terrifying the military and the business sector; the degree of agreement among the opposition on strategy and tactics; the extent of agreement among leaders of the Chilean armed forces; the political skill of the leading Chilean participants, and the influence of external actors.

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