With the festive air of a victory celebration, hundreds of thousands of Chileans converged Saturday at the final opposition rally in the campaign to defeat Gen. Augusto Pinochet in a presidential plebiscite this week and restore democratic rule.
Organizers estimated that the crowd numbered 1.2 million people and said that it was the largest gathering in Chile since Pinochet seized power as the leader of a military coup d’etat 15 years ago. The throng stretched out of sight--spreading across all six lanes of the closed Pan American Highway--in a display of opposition confidence and organizational ability that was missing as recently as a month ago, when Pinochet was nominated as the sole candidate and the formal campaign began.
There was no independent confirmation of the crowd size.
The rally also was the culmination of a 10-day opposition “March of Happiness,” in which caravans of supporters of the No campaign traveled from cities in the far north and south of this long, narrow nation to Saturday’s demonstration in the capital. The opposition said that 2.5 million people had gathered in 27 cities and towns along the way to cheer the caravans.
Favorable poll findings, a successful television publicity campaign and the public’s increased willingness to openly support the No option have generated a sense of momentum for the No campaign in recent days. Pinochet supporters say the race is very close and that they hope to win narrowly.
Emphasizing the opposition’s themes of joy and reconciliation, the rally became a giant festival of folk songs, dancing and declarations of unity among the 16 political parties that make up the No Command. The command, formed in February after years of bickering among the opposition, includes organizations ranging from center-right to left. So far, it has belied predictions that it couldn’t last.
Patricio Aylwin, president of the Christian Democratic Party and a leader of the No Command, said in the day’s lone speech that the government had believed its controls and tactics of intimidation would ensure victory for Pinochet.
“They didn’t take into account the conscience of the people, which never died,” Aylwin said. “The farce has been transformed into smiles.”
The clouds broke at midday and thousands of flags and banners, from Christian Democratic to Communist to the rainbow colors of the No Command, shimmered in the sunlight. Police stayed out of sight, and rally organizers deployed thousands of marshals to manage the crowd.
Referring to the campaign slogan, opposition leader Ricardo Lagos said: “We have been saying that ‘the happiness is coming.’ Today, the happiness arrived--here it is, all around us.
“The fear has been left behind,” said Lagos, a No Command leader and president of the new Party for Democracy. “We always knew we were the majority. But now we know that we also have the capacity to organize, to mobilize, and that we are going to triumph.”
In contrast to a noisy, strident rally of about 100,000 that began the monthlong No drive on Sept. 4, Saturday’s gathering was more light-hearted and optimistic. It ended peacefully.
Hawkers sold “No sandwiches” and “No ice cream,” and a parade of performing actors and singers referred repeatedly to the symbol of the No Command. “These colors represent the rebirth of democracy, with room for different ideas,” said actor Nissim Sharim. “Chile will become a great rainbow, united in its ability to differ.”
If Pinochet loses, he would remain president for another year until multi-party elections in December, 1989. And, under the military-sponsored constitution adopted in 1980, he could remain army commander in chief for at least four more years, wielding considerable power. The opposition has said that if Pinochet is defeated, the military should negotiate a new constitution that would restore Chile’s traditional democracy.
Pinochet’s supporters, seeking a Yes victory that would give the 72-year-old general eight more years in power, plan to hold their own campaign finale today, a series of car caravans through Santiago. Pinochet appeared at a rally Saturday in Rancagua, 50 miles south of here.
The Yes campaign says that the constitution assures the restoration of democracy, including congressional elections next year, and a continuation of the stability Pinochet has fostered over the last 15 years. A No victory, Pinochet forces say, would mean a return to the chaos of 1970-73 under Marxist President Salvador Allende.
In a television spot Thursday night, Pinochet said, “I am not a dictator.” He apologized for any errors he might have made and said that he is committed to a system that makes room for opponents.
Aylwin, the No leader, speaking to the rally crowd from atop a 15-foot-high No sign, asked if after 15 years of repression, “Can anybody really believe that Pinochet is a democrat?”
“No!” the crowd thundered back.