Gen. Augusto Pinochet suffered a stunning defeat in a plebiscite Wednesday, rejected by his people in the first presidential vote since he seized power in a coup 15 years ago.
The united opposition claimed victory by a margin of 58% to 42% over Pinochet, with more than two-thirds of the vote counted in two parallel, unofficial tallies. Opposition leaders declared the vote a mandate from Chileans for a return to the nation’s traditional democracy.
Deputy Interior Minister Alberto Cardemil announced at 2:15 a.m. today that with 71% of the vote in, the opposition was ahead by nearly 500,000 votes, leading the Yes votes 53.3% to 44.4% after about 5 million votes had been tallied.
Earlier, the government had virtually ceased releasing results after an early evening report showing Pinochet with a slim lead based on 3% of the returns. Then, after midnight, Gen. Fernando Matthei, commander of the air force and one of the four military junta members, conceded to reporters that the No vote had prevailed, adding, “We are going to analyze the situation.”
Pinochet, who sought an eight-year term in the yes-or-no vote, said nothing during the vote count apart from a brief comment to reporters that he was concerned about reports of hooded men in the streets.
The opposition’s victory represented an extraordinary renaissance of Chile’s political opposition. A year ago, opposition parties were divided even on whether to participate in the plebiscite, arguing that it would be futile to compete under rules dictated by the military government.
In February, the parties formed an alliance to challenge the 72-year-old general, and the parties stayed united through an imaginative campaign calling on Chileans to decide between dictatorship and democracy.
Even in defeat, Pinochet remains president for another year until multi-party elections in December, 1989, and he can remain armed forces commander for at least four more years.
However, the opposition said it will press for amendments to the constitution to allow open multi-party elections much sooner. Analysts suggested that the decisive defeat could erode Pinochet’s support in the armed forces and encourage talks with the opposition to reach a compromise. At least two of the four military commanders were known to have opposed Pinochet’s candidacy for an eight-year term as president.
‘Accept With Humility’
“We accept this triumph with humility because it clearly means that Chile wants reconciliation,” said Patricio Aylwin, president of the Christian Democratic Party, the largest of the 16 parties in the coalition, called the No Command.
He called on the public to remain in their homes and refrain from celebrations that could allow provocateurs to sow violence and endanger the victory.
There were persistent rumors during the week, taken seriously by Western diplomats and the U.S. State Department, that pro-Pinochet forces might provoke violence and allow the government to nullify the plebiscite result.
Some demonstrations were reported in Santiago’s suburbs, but there no major incidents as of 1 a.m. today. Police and soldiers mounted a massive security operation, sealing off the entire ghost-like downtown area.
Sergio Jarpa, leader of the pro-Pinochet National Renovation Party, acknowledged in a television interview that “this undoubtedly has been a success of the No option.”
Jarpa said that the structure of the vote made it easier for the opposition because they could oppose Pinochet without having to put up candidates and platforms of their own. He said a pro-government candidate still could win the required multi-party election, adding, “We start over now, and we still have great faith in our ideas and doctrines.”
Genaro Arriagada, executive secretary of the No Command, said he was disturbed that the government was so slow in releasing its results.
He compared Pinochet to the Shah of Iran before his fall, saying Pinochet failed to accept the evidence of the polls and huge public demonstrations just as the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi failed to realize that a revolution was brewing outside his palace.
Difficult to Accept Defeat
“It is difficult even for democrats to acknowledge defeat. How much more difficult and stranger for a dictator to accept defeat,” Arriagada said.
The cramped headquarters of the No Command became a festive party as opposition leaders arrived to celebrate, while the government’s Diego Portales office building fell silent and Cabinet members slipped away.
Wednesday morning, with tensions heightened by a blackout on the eve of the plebiscite, millions of voters turned up early at the 1,000 polling stations.
Extraordinary scrutiny by opposition parties and inexperience by election officials slowed the pace of balloting, but there were no reports of significant irregularities.
Coalition Defies Skeptics
The opposition coalition of 16 parties, ranging from left to center-right, defied skeptics by generating a potent campaign against Pinochet. The No Command predicted that Pinochet’s defeat would open a path to full democracy, belatedly following a pattern set during the 1980s in other Latin American countries.
Pinochet campaigned as the man who saved Chile from communist totalitarianism and civil war. He argued that he alone offered true democracy, stability and the sustained economic growth that his supporters described as unprecedented in the region.
An eerie calm descended on downtown Santiago and its suburbs after the polls closed.
On Tuesday night, a blackout had darkened a 1,000-mile swath of central Chile. Nerves were already jangled by rumors that Pinochet’s forces, in the face of defeat, might provoke violence to justify canceling the plebiscite or annuling the result.
At least six explosions that shook Santiago on Tuesday night, which turned out to be “noise bombs,” exacerbated the atmosphere of apprehension.
Thousands of soldiers and riot police were deployed around Santiago and other cities to watch over polling stations, customary in Chilean elections.
‘I Am a Soldier’
Pinochet, asked about possible unrest, told reporters before he voted: “I am a soldier. When they threaten me, instead of being worried, I’m just the opposite. I’m calm, waiting for them to act.”
Voters stood in slow-moving lines that stretched for blocks. National television said two elderly people died while waiting to vote, while two women gave birth. The lines were orderly and nearly silent, and people showed no sign of wavering in their determination to vote, despite the delays of many hours.
“We hope for work for all men and women, and freedom,” said 78-year-old Adela Perez in the poor area of La Victoria, when asked why she was voting No. “Pinochet says we are fine, but it’s pure lies.”
‘People Want Unity’
An elderly Yes voter at the National Stadium polling station said: “This is different from other elections. I’ve never seen such peace and calm as today. The people are more conscientious. They want unity.”
A year ago, no one could have imagined that Chile’s opposition--traditionally splintered--would be able to mount a sustained and united front against Pinochet. Most expected the plebiscite to be a walkover, given the government’s overwhelming domination of television and patronage system.
But the main opposition parties declared in February that they would work together against Pinochet. Even though they viewed the process as illegitimate and the constitution as invalid, the parties declared the plebiscite to be the only avenue open to challenge Pinochet.