An Adventure in Consensus: The Future of Chile after Pinochet

One of the most interesting stories in South America today is the gradual, but marked return to democratic political institutions in Chile—a country which, for more than 15 years, has languished under one of the sternest military dictators in the hemisphere. What is more, Chile may well consolidate its political gains with a new and more pragmatic attitude towards free market economics. This stands in stark contrast to the wasted opportunities in nearby Argentina or Peru, or the uncertain future of free institutions in Brazil, the largest economy and society of the continent. It is a story to which the press and American public should be paying more attention.

First, a bit of background. Since September 1973, when the armed forces overthrew the government of Marxist President Salvador Allende, Chilean politics have been largely the preserve of the commander-in-chief of the army, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. However, Pinochet and his associates, in contrast to military regimes elsewhere in the hemisphere, have taken the trouble to establish a political road map for the future—better known as the Constitution of 1980. While the opposition has never accepted this map—for reasons shortly to be explained—it now finds itself, ironically, its chief beneficiary.

This is so because, among other things, the charter mandated a plebiscite (to be held sometime before March 1989) in which the Chilean people would determine, minimally, the conditions of political transition. Specifically, it provided that the chiefs of the armed forces would propose a candidate for the presidency to serve an eight-year term; Chileans would accept or reject him in an up-or-down vote. In the event of a “no” victory, a new, competitive election would be held approximately one year hence.

In late August of last year, as expected, the junta proposed General Pinochet—74 years of age—as their choice for the next eight years. But to the surprise of many, the opposition managed to unite its disparate forces—from the Christian Democrats on the right to the Socialists and Communists on the left—to defeat Pinochet 56 to 44 percent. More unexpected still was the apparent acceptance of the result by Pinochet and his associates.

The result is that Chile today for the first time in years has returned to something approximating normal political life. There are still many outstanding issues to be resolved, but opposition political leaders and serious national issues are now discussed openly on television, radio, and in public forums. A climate of normality and even of good feeling seems to have settled over much of society. There was no panic on the part of the private sector—no flight of dollars, no collapse of the local currency or stock exchange, no closing of enterprises. And opinion polls show that whatever government is elected in December (to take office in March of next year) will be the product of an electorate quite unlike any in previous Chilean history.

Though at least three pro-government and five opposition leaders could be credible presidential candidates, at this point it appears inevitable that the race will narrow down between two—one representing the constituency which voted for Pinochet in the plebiscite (the 44 percent), the other the combined forces of the opposition. This is a formula, obviously, for an opposition victory, and indeed many people take it for granted that Patricio Alwyn, the President of the Christian Democratic Party (and designated spokesman of the “No” vote in the recent plebiscite) will be the next president of Chile.

Nonetheless, the coalition which will bring Alwyn to power will be extremely broad. It will consist not only of his own party—presumptively Chile’s largest—but the small, centrist Radical and Social Democratic parties, as well as two or three factions of Allende’s old Socialist Party. Chile’s Communists, while not officially a part of this electoral alliance, will have nowhere else to go; their voters will presumably go with Alwyn as the only acceptable alternative—a bitter pill for them to swallow, since as leader of the Christian Democrats in the Chilean Senate in 1973, Alwyn was an extremely tough negotiator with Allende’s coalition, and no friend of the left.

On the government side, almost immediately after the plebiscite the question of the day was whether Pinochet would choose to run again—this time in a competitive election, against the ordinary politicians he holds in such signal contempt. The Constitution itself, like many another document written by lawyers, can probably be interpreted either way, but the political realities have registered on the service chiefs, and it appears now that Pinochet finds it imprudent to press the point. On the other hand, the Constitution allows him to remain as commander-in-chief of the army for another eight years (as well as to be a senator for life). Exactly what this will mean for the discretionary powers of the new democratic government remains to be seen.

If not Pinochet, then whom? Like most dictators, Pinochet has never shown much interest in grooming a successor, and like all of them, he regards himself as indispensable. This has left the forces which support the government (or its program) at somewhat of a loss, and old divisions have resurfaced. Nonetheless, it appears now the candidate of the right will be former Economy Minister Hernan Buchi (pronounced Bee-kee), a 40-year-old economic technician who is credited with Chile’s remarkable recovery. Slim, ascetic, an ardent jogger, Buchi was seen by the president’s advisors as the embodiment of a new generation of conservative Chileans—dynamic rather than nostalgic, more interested in growth than in hierarchy. In several trial appearances on television last February and March, however, Buchi appeared to lack flash and personal appeal; above all, it appeared he cannot read a speech well. By mid-May, after several weeks of serious speculation, he withdrew from the race, claiming that he did not possess a “political vocation.” Since then he has reversed himself and re-entered the race. While no poll shows him winning when matched against Patricio Alwyn (the latest poll, July 25, gives the Christian Democrat 53.9 percent to Buchi’s 35.3), no other conceivable standard-bearer of the right could even approach his appeal.

In finally tossing his hat into the ring, Buchi has apparently put an end to the presidential ambitions of Sergio Onofre Jarpa, 69, conservative warhorse and former Interior Minister for Pinochet (1983-85). Jarpa represents the pre-Pinochet right, which is strongly critical of the regime’s economic model, as well as the “consumer society” it has generated. Another thwarted right-wing leader is Francisco Errazuriz, a wealthy banker who burst upon the scene last January as a dynamic, younger version of Jarpa. Both men, however, and particularly Jarpa, are expected to play an important role in conservative politics after the elections.

Though the right has agreed upon a candidate, from a policy perspective it is at least as divided as the opposition—in this case, between free marketeers and right-wing populists, and also (what amounts to the same thing) between unconditional Pinochetistas and more independent conservatives. While the right cannot logically win the presidency, it will go into the election with roughly twice the support it enjoyed in the years since World War II. Indeed, if a single conservative party can be created, it will be at least the second largest political force in the country, and—if the Christian Democrats divide among themselves—conceivably the largest. Forty-four percent is a huge bloc of votes for Chile, since few presidents have been elected with an absolute majority.

This is no mere trick of electoral geography. Repeated public opinion surveys carried out by the CERC, the Christian Democratic think tank, show how solid Pinochet’s percentage in the plebiscite remains for some right-wing candidate or coalition. The CERC surveys also show a general moderation in the Chilean electorate; few Chileans expect democratic government to solve all of their personal economic problems overnight, and most are concerned as much with stability, order, and personal property rights as with justice and human rights. Almost all of the available evidence demonstrates that the ideological center of Chilean politics has moved rightward, though not precisely to the right. One example is a recent CERC survey in which Chileans were invited to “locate” their country on a spectrum of Western European governments. Somewhat astoundingly, fully 95 percent placed it between West Germany and Luxembourg! This may not be a very accurate reading, but it tells us something about the broad aspirations of the public and also suggests how little appeal Cuba, Nicaragua, or the Soviet Union exercise, even over voters who continue to support parties of the left. Another CERC poll taken less than two months ago gives the parties of the left—the Communists, Socialists, Christian Left, and allies—no more than 20 percent of the vote (as opposed to slightly more than a third in times past). Quite clearly, national agendas, points of reference, and aspirations have changed a great deal since 1970, when Allende took office as the first Marxist chief of state freely elected anywhere in the world.

There is still, of course, much unfinished business in the transition, including the question of the role of General Pinochet as commander-in-chief of the army. Most opposition politicians take for granted that Pinochet will not enjoy being merely one general among others, biding his time in the antechamber of the civilian defense minister, or haggling with congressional committees over the army budget. Pinochet is a proud and sensitive man, a typical lower-middle-class Chilean whose greatest fear is that people will laugh at him. He has already sustained an enormous blow to his prestige by losing the plebiscite, and his capacity to dominate the news has diminished accordingly. Most Chileans now regard him with a combination of fear and contempt; the optimists among them imagine that soon the military will see that their own corporate interests lie in different leadership, and perhaps the elderly general—he will be 76 by the time the transition is completed—will see that his own interests require a discreet retirement. Human rights activists would naturally like to call the general to account for his misdeeds (which are many), but political realists wonder out loud if the dictator’s impunity may not be the price the country will have to pay for a politically quiescent military.

Apart from the person of Pinochet, the major question before the political community is the Constitution of 1980—or rather, certain restrictive features which have made it unacceptable to the opposition. Since Pinochet’s defeat in the plebiscite, the political geography has shifted somewhat, and now both government and opposition find reason to make changes in the document. On June 1, Pinochet announced some of these alterations, which include a reduction of the presidential term from eight to four years; an increase in the number of elected (as opposed to appointed) senators; a revision of Article 8, which allowed the government to proscribe candidates for reasons of ideology; and most important of all, a liberalization of the terms under which the charter itself can be amended in the future.

One particular change—the halving of the length of the presidential term—serves Pinochet’s interest as much or more as the opposition’s. (He remains convinced that after four years the electorate will see the error of its ways and return him to power.) But the others clearly address themselves to the concerns of the opposition, particularly those pertaining to pluralism and future changes to the Constitution. This suggests, among other things, that the victory of the opposition was even greater last year than many thought and that the armed forces have clearly inclined Pinochet’s hand further than would otherwise be the case. If that is so, then Chile would seem well launched upon an adventure in consensus which could conceivably produce the most impressive result in the region. The ultimate result, however, will depend largely upon how the various actors—civilians and military, government and opposition, left and right—discipline their own forces, and learn how to listen to each other.


  • Mark Falcoff

    Mark Falcoff is an American scholar and policy consultant who has worked with a number of important think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Hoover Institution, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

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