Authoritarianism Defeated by Its Own Rules

Chile Table of Contents

The reversal of fortune for Chile's democratic opposition came very gradually. After massive protests in 1983, spearheaded by labor leaders buoyed by mass discontent in the wake of a sharp downturn in the nation's economy, party leaders sought to set aside their acrimonious disputes and make a collective effort to bring an end to the military government. By this point, even influential elements on the right were signaling their displeasure with the personalization of power, fearing that a prolongation of the Pinochet regime would only serve to radicalize Chilean politics further and set the stage for a popular uprising that would overwhelm the authorities.

But Pinochet seemed to relish the challenge of taking on the opposition and was determined to carry out his self-appointed mandate to reshape Chile's economic and political systems. In a strategic retreat made under pressure from regime moderates, Pinochet briefly permitted officials to open a dialogue with democratic opponents, only to refuse to make any change in the formula for transition outlined in the constitution of 1980. In response to the continuing wave of protests, Pinochet declared a state of siege in November 1984 that included a crackdown on all demonstrations.

In August 1985, after months of delicate intraparty negotiations backed by Chile's Roman Catholic cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno, a broad alliance of eleven political groups, from center-right to socialist, signed a document entitled the National Accord for Transition to Full Democracy. It called for a gradual transition to civilian rule without specifying a particular timetable; legalization of all political activity; an end to restrictions on civil liberties; and free, direct presidential elections rather than the plebiscite contemplated in the constitution of 1980. The signing of the accord by such an array of groups meant that for the first time since 1973 Pinochet could no longer claim majority support. The regime appeared vulnerable, and many Chileans began to believe that Pinochet would agree to relinquish power.

And yet, the accord soon lost its momentum as Pinochet and his aides worked skillfully to sow mistrust and rancor within the fragile alliance. The general refused to acknowledge the accord's existence or meet with its leaders, despite a personal plea from Cardinal Fresno.

In the face of a determined military leader, opposition forces were at a clear disadvantage. They had no coherent strategy to force the regime to accept their point of view. The far left, which had refused to endorse the accord, hoped for a Sandinista-style insurrection that would drive Pinochet from power and give the PCCh and its allies, which included clandestine armed groups, the upper hand in the formation of a "provisional" alternative government. The moderate opposition envisioned a completely different scenario: some kind of breakdown of military support for Pinochet in response to peaceful civilian discontent, followed by free elections.

With the erosion of support for the National Accord, the Chilean opposition fell back into partisan and ideological quarrels. After years without national, local, or even internal party elections, opposition leaders were frozen in past disputes, incapable of gauging popular support for various policies. Given the parties' stasis, student elections on Chile's university campuses became bellwethers of political opinion. Often, the Christian Democratic and Communist candidates for student offices proved far more willing to compromise and form working alliances than their older counterparts.

The dramatic attempt on Pinochet's life by the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (Frente Patriótica Manuel Rodríguez--FPMR) in September 1986 further weakened the general's divided opponents and temporarily strengthened his own grip on power. The elaborately planned attack by the PCCh's armed branch, in which commandos stormed Pinochet's motorcade on a hillside road outside Santiago, left five bodyguards dead but the general unharmed. Conservatives rallied around the regime, Christian Democrats and moderate Socialists distanced themselves from the Communists, and the Western democracies tempered their support of the opposition movement. Over the ensuing months, several new campaigns by the democratic opposition fizzled, including a movement of prominent citizens calling for free elections. Key opposition leaders, notably Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin Azócar, began to emphasize the wisdom of trying to take on the regime in the upcoming plebiscite, rather than pressing for free elections.

As 1987 began, Pinochet and his aides confidently started planning for the presidential plebiscite. The economy was showing signs of recovery. The Marxist left, decimated by arrests and executions following the attack on Pinochet, was discredited. The democratic opposition was torn between those who accepted the regime's transition formula and those who denounced it as illegitimate. Moderate conservatives and some regime insiders, including the chiefs of the FACh and the National Police (Policía Nacional), urged Pinochet to permit open elections or to allow a candidate other than himself to stand for office. But the general was surrounded by sycophants who assured him that he was the only man capable of saving Chile from anarchy and chaos. Pinochet viewed politicians as demagogues determined to reverse the accomplishments of the military regime that only he, as a patriotic, self- sacrificing soldier, could defend in the face of a life-and-death threat from the communist foe.

On August 30, 1988, Chile's four military commanders met in secret deliberation and unanimously nominated the seventy-three- year-old Pinochet to run for president in a plebiscite that would take place in just five weeks, on October 5. Any commander who might have opposed General Pinochet did not do so, apparently because of a belief in the principle of military unity, or because of intimidation by Pinochet's power. The vast resources of the regime were already mobilized to ensure Pinochet's victory. Military provincial governors and civilian mayors, all appointed by Pinochet, were acting as local campaign chiefs. A voter- registration drive had begun in early 1987, with Pinochet himself the first to register. While opposition forces were denied access to the mass media, state television aired glowing advertisements for the government's accomplishments. The regime stepped up production of low-income housing, and Pinochet presided over countless ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The general's wife, Lucía Hiriart, who headed a vast network of women's aid and mothers' clubs, organized them into a grass-roots support network for the yes vote.

The turning point for the opposition had come in 1987, when key leaders concluded that their only hope to defeat the military was to beat it at its own game. Opposition leaders accepted the reality, if not the legitimacy, of constitutional provisions they despised by agreeing to register their followers in the electoral rolls set up by the junta, legalize political parties according to the regime's own prescriptions, and prepare to participate fully in a plebiscite they viewed as undemocratic.

By early 1988, fourteen parties had joined a loose coalition for the no vote. Moderate Socialists played a key role in convincing dubious Chilean leftists to register to vote, and the more radical wing of the Socialist Party finally followed suit. With little money and only limited freedom to operate, an all- volunteer force led by Socialists and Christian Democrats registered voters, organized training sessions for poll watchers, and collected the signatures needed to legalize parties. By the cutoff date, a record 92 percent of the voting-age population had registered to vote, and four parties had collected enough signatures to register poll watchers for 22,000 voting tables.

Despite inherently unfair campaign conditions, the military government made some efforts to provide a level playing field. The Constitutional Tribunal, to the annoyance of some hard-liners in the regime, issued a firm ruling arguing that the constitution requires the implementation of a series of measures that would guarantee an impartial vote and vote count. Ironically, these measures had not been applied in the plebiscite that had ratified the constitution itself in 1980. Although opposition leaders did not trust the government, a fair election was also in the government's interest. Pinochet and his commanders were confident that the population's fear of a return to the confrontations of the early 1970s, in combination with signs of economic recovery and a campaign run with military efficiency, would permit Pinochet to overwhelm the fractious opposition and let his detractors, both at home and abroad, know that he enjoyed broad popular legitimacy.

In the weeks before the plebiscite, the no campaign, finally granted access to television, stunned the nation with its unity and a series of upbeat, appealing advertisements that stressed harmony and joy in a reunited Chile, called for a return to democratic traditions, and hinted at the poverty and oppression average people had suffered under the dictatorship. In response, the government stepped up its official propaganda campaign, bombarding the airwaves with grim and far less appealing ads that reminded voters of the violence and disorder that had preceded the coup and warned that Pinochet's opponents offered only more of the same.

On October 5, 1988, the voting proceeded in a quiet, orderly fashion, with military guards at each polling place, per tradition. By 9:00 P.M., the opposition's computers had counted half a million votes and showed the no tally to be far ahead. However, the government kept delaying the release of its tallies, and state television finally switched to a comedy series from the United States.

After frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations and a failed effort by some government officials to provoke street violence as an excuse to cancel the plebiscite, government television announced, at 2:40 A.M., that with 71 percent of the vote counted, the no was far ahead. The following night, a grim-faced Pinochet appeared on television and acknowledged his defeat: 54.5 percent for the no, versus 43 percent for the yes. Pinochet's acceptance of his electoral loss was a remarkable event. Despite the general's evident ambition to remain in power, the firm discipline within Chile's military establishment and the commitment of the other junta commanders, who had pledged to guarantee the vote's outcome, prevented him from doing so.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress