In accepting his defeat at the polls, Gen. Augusto Pinochet defied those who said that a dictator would never submit to the verdict of the ballot. He also shifted the burden onto the shoulders of Chile’s fragile opposition alliance, which now must transform its victory into concrete democratic reforms.
And Chile’s era of uncertainty is far from over. Pinochet’s drubbing, by a margin of 54% to 43% in a yes-or-no vote Wednesday, opens up new avenues of potential conflict that ultimately could play into the 72-year-old general’s still very powerful hands.
Pinochet, who seized power in a bloody coup in 1973, went a long way toward demonstrating his self-proclaimed commitment to democracy by conceding the loss.
The defeat denied Pinochet an eight-year term as president, starting next March, and set the stage for multi-party elections for president and a new congress in December, 1989, to take office in March, 1990.
Yet his own constitution, adopted in 1980, keeps him in office for 17 more months and ensures that the armed forces can steer Chilean politics for years to come if they choose. Thus, Pinochet can simply dig in and stick to the rules his government created.
At the same time, the coalition of 16 parties that trounced Pinochet now must contend with intense hopes and expectations, heightened by the unexpected victory margin, for dramatic changes in the entire political structure of Chile.
As spontaneous street celebrations engulf Santiago, the opposition also has to show itself capable of controlling its supporters while it seeks concessions from the military in what are certain to be negotiations conducted at a snail’s pace.
“The constitution is now the retreating area for Pinochet,” said Fernando Reyes, a spokesman for the opposition No Command. “The government can simply retreat behind the constitution and show no flexibility.”
But it is unclear whether the military will remain united behind a defeated man or opt for negotiations to defuse tensions. Many suspect that at a time of conflict, the armed forces--and especially the army that Pinochet commands--will be likely to value unity above all other concerns, even though two of the four junta members had said publicly that Pinochet was not the ideal candidate for Wednesday’s plebiscite.
An initial indication may emerge when Pinochet appoints a new Cabinet to replace the one that resigned in a body Thursday after Pinochet’s big defeat at the polls. By appointing moderate ministers acceptable to the opposition, Pinochet could indicate a willingness to seek consensus. By reappointing old faces, he would signal a more hard-line stance.
Meanwhile, dire warnings by opposition leaders that Pinochet would somehow cancel the plebiscite rather than accept defeat proved unfounded, and a vast security operation remained disciplined. The opposition worked hard to avoid conflict that could endanger the victory. People heeded the No Command’s pleas and stayed home during the count, celebrating quietly.
But many months lie ahead, and Pinochet has time yet to seize on excesses or violence, even if only a small minority is involved, to justify a crackdown and even reimpose emergency restrictions that were lifted during the campaign.
When the outcome became clear, Patricio Aylwin, the moderate leader of the opposition alliance and president of the Christian Democratic Party, repeatedly called on both sides to show a spirit of reconciliation. Aylwin knows that antagonizing the Yes forces by gloating over victory could make it harder to bring the armed forces to the bargaining table at all.
But by midday Thursday, emotions spawned by the first major opposition victory after 15 years of military rule bubbled over. Thousands of people spilled into the streets in spontaneous festivities, ignoring a request by opposition leader Ricardo Lagos that people disperse and await a more organized celebration Saturday.
After sporadic forays with tear gas trucks and mounted water cannon, the police agreed that marchers could proceed down a pedestrian shopping street, an unusual concession under a government that was previously quick to act against opposition rallies.
But some youths were determined to march to the Moneda, the presidential palace, to jeer at Pinochet from close range. An afternoon of scattered unrest ensued, despite exhortations from moderate celebrants to avoid trouble.
Such disruptions over the next year could exacerbate the moderate opposition’s problems in convincing the military that Chile is ready for a return to democracy. Conflict also could place strains on the opposition’s unity, which will be challenged as the parties decide among themselves what issues they want to focus on in talks with the armed forces--and whether to propose a single opposition candidate for president.
“Chile is now, with the plebiscite, taking a first clear and dramatic step out of the tension and conflict that goes back to the period of Salvador Allende,” said a diplomat, referring to the elected Marxist president who governed from 1970 until Pinochet’s 1973 coup.
But he cautioned: “There is an inherent instability, if nothing else because there is a new set of rules and roles for everybody.”