As Gen. Augusto Pinochet marks the 14th anniversary today of his bloody rise to power, he faces a new challenge by an opposition alliance formed to try to defeat him at the polls.
Pinochet, 71, also is facing a disruptive offensive by Communist urban guerrillas. The Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front has been holding a kidnaped army lieutenant colonel since Sept. 1, demanding a $2-million ransom, and early this week the guerrillas shot up five Santiago police stations in coordinated nighttime attacks.
But since the guerrillas failed in an attempt to assassinate Pinochet in an assault on his motorcade a year ago, they have lost momentum. Now, the most serious test of the tenacious ruler’s staying power is expected to come from the political front.
Long divided and disorganized, the non-Marxist political opposition appears to be moving with determination toward concerted action. An array of centrist and moderate leftist parties joined forces this month in a “coordinating committee” that is starting a campaign aimed at winning a crucial national plebiscite and bringing an end to the Pinochet government.
Open Elections Possible
If the government loses the plebiscite, according to Pinochet’s constitution, open presidential elections will be held.
The new opposition committee includes a reorganized Christian Democratic Party, Chile’s largest party, and relatively moderate factions of the late President Salvador Allende’s Socialist Party.
On Sept. 11, 1973, Pinochet led a coup against Allende’s elected Popular Unity government, a coalition formed around the Communist and Socialist parties, Chile’s two principal Marxist parties of that day. The coup ended a raucous period of social and economic upheaval.
Allende died while his Moneda Palace headquarters was under military siege that day. Thousands of other Chileans died in fighting around the country and in harsh repression after the coup.
A constitution drafted by Pinochet partisans and adopted in a government-dominated plebiscite in 1980 gave Pinochet a new eight-year term as president, with the possibility of an additional eight years after that. According to the constitution, another plebiscite is supposed to be held sometime before March, 1989.
Voters will be asked to say “yes” or “no” to a single candidate, nominated unanimously by the commanders of the army, air force, navy and national uniformed police. Most analysts expect the vote to be scheduled sometime next year, perhaps on Sept. 11, and few doubt that Pinochet wants to be the candidate.
For the last several months, he and his government have been engaged in a publicity campaign based on the theme of “projecting” the regime into the future. In his public statements, Pinochet emphasizes the alleged dangers of returning to the turmoil that led up to the 1973 coup.
“The options are to continue with the deepening of the government’s great works, or to go backward to the chaos and the anarchy that existed up to the intervention of the armed forces,” Pinochet said in a newspaper interview published last Sunday.
The navy, air force and police commanders have all said they would prefer a civilian candidate for the plebiscite. They are believed to fear that a loss by Gen. Pinochet would damage the prestige of the armed forces.
According to widespread speculation, a compromise might be reached in which Pinochet would retire as the army’s commander in exchange for the nomination.
Although the opposition continues to demand presidential elections with competing candidates, most parties seem to think that a single-candidate plebiscite is inevitable.
The previous leadership of the center-left Christian Democratic Party was reluctant to register as a legal party under a new law. But the party’s new president, Patricio Aylwin, has begun the registration procedure.
“Gen. Pinochet should be concerned about this registration, which is destined to prevent him from perpetuating himself in power,” Aylwin said in a recent statement.
Aylwin also led the party into the new coordinating committee.
Ricardo Lagos, a Socialist leader and a member of the committee, said in an interview that volunteer workers are already going door to door urging Chileans to register as voters. He said the committee has about 2,000 part-time volunteers but hopes to have 35,000 by the end of the year and 100,000 by next March.
“We are just beginning,” Lagos said.
Since the government began registering voters early this year, about 2 million of an estimated 8 million eligible Chileans have signed up. Opposition leaders calculate that if they can get 6 million to 7 million people registered, they can win the plebiscite.