Pinochet Should Get His Prize, but He Shouldn’t Stay

<i> L. Francis Bouchey is the president of the Council for Inter-American Security, an in-dependent research institute in Washington</i>

As expected, President Augusto Pinochet is the choice of Chile’s military chiefs to be the sole candidate in next month’s yes-or-no presidential plebiscite. And, as expected, hundreds of thousands of Chileans have demonstrated in the capital to urge a no vote. This might lead outsiders to expect Pinochet to be rejected in the Oct. 5 balloting. In fact, his stature has risen sharply in the past year, and his prospects for an honest victory look excellent.

A poll conducted in August, 1987, by El Mercurio, Santiago’s leading newspaper, showed only 23% of Chileans favoring Pinochet, with 30% opposed to his remaining in office and 47% abstaining or unsure. By January his popularity had risen to 39%, a Gallup poll reported, with 27% opposed and 33% undecided. A May poll done by the University of Chile yielded similar results: 38% would favor any candidate proposed by the junta; 29% would vote no ; 27% were undecided. The most comprehensive poll to date, done in June by Chile’s conservative Center for Public Studies, showed Pinochet at 33%, the no vote at 37% and undecided at 30%.

Nationwide polls done by the Gallup organization and others show that while the government is losing by a wide margin in Santiago, results tilt in its favor in the remaining regions of the country. And Pinochet’s approval rating moves up as the “undecided” number shrinks, as more people from the rural, conservative south register to vote. If Pinochet takes just a bit more than half the undecided vote, he will be elected.

This breaks the pattern. Dictators with whom Pinochet is regularly lumped are supposed to be repressive, despised by their people and unable to win or keep power democratically. But Pinochet’s regime, although authoritarian and far from universally popular, is not technically dictatorial, since it has respected both the constitution (popularly approved by a two-thirds vote in 1980) and an independent judiciary. Nor is his rule as all-encompassing or repressive as that of a Stroessner, a Duvalier or even a Mobutu. State intervention in the economy is small and shrinking. The press now functions quite freely, and security of the non-activist person is respected.


Political graffiti, placards and demonstrations are also relatively rare in Chile outside the Santiago political hothouse, but not because they are prohibited. Chileans appear to be generally content with their lot and apathetic toward politics. A survey conducted last summer by Flasco, a respected leftist think tank in Santiago, showed “the dictatorship” and concern for human rights far down on the list of peoples’ concerns.

The apathy results from the nation’s impressive economic growth since 1982 and the inability of opposition parties to unite behind a positive program. Even though there are purportedly 12 to 16 political parties in Chile, only four managed to round up the 35,000 signatures necessary to qualify as a national party.

Chileans appreciate their current prosperity; it was not always this way. Democracy had been deteriorating for at least 30 years under nearly equally statist governments of both the left and the right. In today’s fractious and polarized opposition parties, Chileans see the possibility of a return to the political chaos that allowed Marxist Salvador Allende to capture the presidency in 1970 and nearly ruin their country. The May Gallup poll showed that, nationwide, only 10% of prospective voters feel represented by a political party. Although they might prefer competitive elections, when faced with a return to the “government of parties” many Chileans, particularly women, prefer to stay with a familiar and tolerable system, regardless of its shortcomings.

Although Pinochet may stay in power for a time, Chile’s future depends on change. In the present circumstances he probably can win the plebiscite by a slim majority, but he risks undermining his accomplishments by trying to hold power for the full eight-year term that a yes vote would grant him. By prolonging his stay in power unduly, he risks identifying the established “protected democracy” too closely with himself and turning the 1980 constitution into a perceived tool for personalist rule.


If Francisco Franco, longtime caudillo of Spain, had ceded power in 1967 or 1968, his constitutional regime might have survived. Instead, it died with him in 1975. The French Fifth Republic would not likely have survived if Charles de Gaulle had died in office; his voluntary retirement allowed the system that he created to acquire an institutional life of its own. If Pinochet claims a full eight years, the democratic system now emerging will probably not survive his death or forced retirement.

Like De Gaulle, Pinochet should remove himself voluntarily after laying the foundation for a return to full democracy to ensure that the old evils--polarization, socialization, party rule--do not return. Unfortunately, his is the only name on the ballot, and he doesn’t seem eager to give anyone else a chance.