Gen. Augusto Pinochet declared Thursday night that he accepts his defeat at the polls as the verdict of Chile’s emerging democracy, but he also effectively brushed aside the opposition’s demands for far broader political reforms.
As Pinochet spoke to the nation for the first time since Wednesday’s vote, tens of thousands of people filled the streets of the capital, celebrating his defeat in a spontaneous fiesta. But some celebrants skirmished violently with riot police amid the fumes of tear gas, giving an eerie irony to their chant, “The people said ‘no'--the war is over.”
Dressed in a white military uniform, Pinochet spoke on national television without bitterness about his decisive loss, which denied him eight more years as president and opened the way to a multi-party presidential election in December, 1989.
The entire Cabinet resigned, a Chilean custom after an election defeat, but Pinochet rejected the resignations, the government information service said. That was interpreted as a sign that Pinochet would adopt a hard-line stance in the face of opposition demands that the government negotiate changes in the constitution to limit the military’s sweeping powers and restore fully democratic rule.
While accepting the outcome, Pinochet said the ballot was on his candidacy, not on the entire constitution, which was written by the military and adopted in a disputed referendum in 1980. The constitution says that despite his defeat, Pinochet remains president until March of 1990, stays on as army commander for at least four years and retains other powers through the National Security Council.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the results became known nearly 24 hours earlier, Pinochet said: “Let no one be fooled. Chile will continue its march to full democracy, and no one will stop that process.”
But he added, “One must not alter the constitutional order of the republic, and no one can claim the mandate of the people to twist that which the people themselves decided.”
The opposition coalition has insisted that Pinochet’s defeat was indeed a mandate for constitutional reform, and not simply a vote on Pinochet, who seized power in a coup in 1973.
The celebrations persisted from before noon until well into the night, and 30 people were arrested. Streetlights went out briefly in the downtown area where clashes occurred, and police buses and a helicopter shined powerful spotlights while roving foot patrols scoured the streets for those who ignored orders to go home.
The tense atmosphere and din of sirens underscored the uncertainty ahead for Chileans as they confront a suddenly changed political landscape after 15 years of unchallenged rule by Pinochet.
Virtually complete results from the yes-or-no vote Wednesday showed 54.6% against Pinochet, 43% in favor, and the rest spoiled or blank votes. In the first real electoral test since he seized power in a coup in 1973, Pinochet got 3,106,099 votes while 3,945,865 people voted “no,” an extraordinarily high turnout.
Pinochet stayed out of sight throughout the day after the plebiscite. He remained in the downtown presidential palace, La Moneda, while vast crowds assembled outside the building and along several miles of Santiago’s main avenue, Liberator Bernardo O’Higgins.
Patricio Aylwin, leader of the opposition coalition, pleaded with the participants in a radio address to go home, declaring, “All of us have to make sure that the happiness we have won is not stained by violence.”
Essential to Avoid Unrest
He and other leaders of the No Command, the coalition of 16 parties that led the anti-Pinochet campaign, said it was essential to avoid unrest and confrontation that could tarnish the first opposition victory against the military government in the 15 years since the coup.
To channel the explosion of energy unleashed Thursday, Aylwin announced that the No Command will hold a victory party on Friday afternoon in O’Higgins Park, a central site that had been denied the opposition for its final campaign rally.
In Washington, the State Department praised Chilean voters for the peaceful turnout, considered by international observers to be extraordinarily high. In a statement, the department said it was “an impressive demonstration of the power of the ballot box. We likewise congratulate the Chilean government for carrying out its pledge of an impartial and orderly plebiscite.
“The United States joins with others in the international community in pledging its strong support for the orderly and peaceful evolution of the democratic process in Chile,” it added.
The opposition’s festivities began with a handful of people congregating before noon in the central city. The group marched to the main avenue, and hundreds, then thousands joined in. Police units showed unusual restraint, allowing the throng to take over the avenue for an hour at midday--and even to stop and chant, “Bye bye, go away, Pinochet!” in front of Diego Portales, the main government office building.
The campaign slogan, “happiness is coming,” was updated to “happiness has arrived,” with a new final line: “Pinochet has fallen.”
Confetti tumbled down from tall buildings, and people gathered on balconies to cheer the marchers. Ricardo Lagos, a leader of the No Command, saluted the crowd from a window of the opposition headquarters and asked them to go home and await a more organized celebration.
But the crowd, led by shouting youths, started marching toward Pinochet’s palace, and police lobbed tear-gas grenades and fired stinging jets of water laced with tear gas while a few people threw stones. Many sought to hold peaceful and good-spirited celebrations, but a minority seemed to want to taunt and engage the police units. Some citizens tried in vain to discourage confrontations.
At one point, a helmeted officer was kicked to the ground by a few demonstrators.
Vote Proceeded Smoothly
Opposition party leaders had accused Pinochet’s supporters of planning to provoke incidents on Wednesday to allow the government to cancel the plebiscite in the face of defeat, but the vote proceeded smoothly and fairly, according to leaders of both camps and the array of international observers in Chile for the vote.
In his victory address for the No Command, Aylwin appealed to the Armed Forces to join in negotiations on changing the constitution to restore Chile’s tradition of full democratic rule.
But Pinochet’s remarks and comments by a range of pro-Pinochet leaders indicated that while they accepted the outcome, they were in no rush to consider changes to the constitution. That left the No leaders caught between a restive majority of citizens intent on dramatic change and government forces intent on safeguarding the range of powers they retain despite their defeat at the polls.