Imposition of Authoritarian Rule

Chile Table of Contents

The military authorities took power in a violent coup on September 11, 1973, accusing Allende, who committed suicide during the takeover, of having violated the constitution. Within months, however, it became apparent that the new regime blamed the breakdown of democracy not only on the parties of the left and the Marxist president but also on the institutional framework embodied in the constitution of 1925. In the military's view, Chile's constitution had encouraged the rise of venal parties and politicians preoccupied not with the broader welfare of the country but with their own interests and hunger for power. The military blamed what they viewed as self-serving politicians for allowing foreign ideologies to penetrate the nation, thereby creating an internal threat that the armed forces felt obliged to confront.

Within days of the coup, the new government appointed a commission of conservative scholars to begin crafting a new constitutional order. However, after initial enthusiasm for their work, commission members soon discovered that institutional reform was not a top priority of the authorities and that the junta was in no hurry to set a timetable for its own departure. The military's primary goal was to revitalize the economy, while destroying the parties of the left and rendering obsolete the parties and leaders of other stripes.

In 1978, however, a power struggle within the junta between Pinochet, commander of the Army of Chile (Ejército de Chile), and Gustavo Leigh Guzmán, the FACh commander, forced the military government to come to terms with its blueprint for the future of the country. Leigh resented the growing power and influence of Pinochet, his putative equal in the junta, and sought to force an early conclusion to the transition back to civilian rule in a form similar to the constitutional framework of the immediate past. Pinochet, basking in the power and authority of an executive with access to a powerful secret police network, the National Information Center (Centro Nacional de Información--CNI), which replaced the National Intelligence Directorate (Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia--DINA) in 1977, had no enthusiasm for an early return to civilian rule; rather, he hoped to institute more farreaching transformations of Chile's institutions. The junta president was an admirer of long-time Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, whose 1975 funeral he had attended in one of his few trips abroad. Pinochet also viewed Franco's political system as a model for Chile, one in which the armed forces could play a permanent guiding role. When Leigh was forcibly dismissed from the junta in April 1978, in a veritable coup within a coup, Pinochet's position became unassailable. Within months, Pinochet instructed the constitutional commission, which had languished with no clear purpose, to produce a new constitution with a time frame more to his liking. When the Council of State (Consejo de Estado), headed by former president Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez (1958-64), softened some of the provisions of the draft and proposed a return to civilian rule by 1985, Pinochet balked and demanded a new, tougher version.

The "permanent" articles of the draft were designed to go into effect a decade after promulgation, and Pinochet was specifically named to preside over the country's fortunes for an eight-year "transition" period. Pinochet further insisted that he be named to fill the first eight-year term of the "constitutional period" that followed, which would begin in 1990. The president's advisers, however, were able to persuade him that ratification of the constitution in a plebiscite could be seriously jeopardized if it were too apparent that Pinochet would obtain an additional sixteenyear mandate.

To satisfy Pinochet's ambitions, the designers of the constitution provided for a plebiscite to be held in late 1988 or 1989 on a single candidate to be designated by the four commanders of the armed forces (army commander Pinochet included) to lead the country in the next eight-year term. In an obscure provision, the text specifically exempted Pinochet from the article barring presidents from reelection, a clear sign that the general had every intention of perpetuating himself in power.

With the ratification of the constitution of 1980, in a highly irregular and undemocratic plebiscite characterized by the absence of registration lists, Pinochet achieved his objectives. Chile's democratic parties had proved incapable of challenging the power of the military to impose its own blueprint for the future. After seven years of constitutional ambiguity and questionable political legitimacy, the military's sweeping control over virtually every aspect of public life had become codified and sanctioned in an elaborate "democratic" ritual, which the authorities believed finally conferred on them the legitimacy of the popular will. With the economy at last on the upswing and a majority of voters resigned to accepting military rule as the only means of ensuring order and prosperity, Pinochet seemed invincible. As if to signal the government's renewed confidence and continuing contempt for its political opponents, Andrés Zaldívar, the highly respected president of the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano--PDC), was exiled for daring to question the plebiscite's results.

More about the Government and Politics of Chile.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress