Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Why Chile civilians lack strong leaders to oppose military

A number of questions remain about Chile's political opposition 19 months after it started leading protests against the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

Why can't it find strong leadership? Why can't it unify in the face of a dictatorial government? Could it weave a stable coalition, should it come to power?

About these ads

Despite the weaknesses of Chile's civilian opposition, observers say opposition politicians are stronger now than at any other time during the 11 years of General Pinochet's rule. The month-old state of siege in Chile has deepened discontent with the military regime. And opposition parties appear to be seeking greater consensus among themselves and adopting more realistic strategies.

Yet analysts still question what real changes have occurred in the political landscape since the military overthrow of Marxist President Salvador Allende Gossens in 1973.

Political analysts here say civilian politics began to flounder in the 1970 election, which Mr. Allende won. Allende beat two other candidates in the vote but garnered less than 37 percent of all ballots cast. And regimes that have such narrow vote margins - winning just one of the left, center, and right sectors - often fail. The 1970 vote was the last time Chileans went to the polls.

Allende's downfall, however, is also blamed partly on the sweeping reforms he tried to impose, even though he had the support from only the left.

The biggest change on today's political map is the addition of a fourth current made up of a handful of socialist groups that are democratic. This differentiates them from other leftist groups such as the Communists and other Marxist parties. But it is too soon to judge the impact of the new group, and difficult to analyze the strength of civilian politics without elections.

''Without real elections, no one can really say how the country has shifted, '' says Andres Allamand, the young leader of the National Union Movement, one of two large center-right parties here.

And there are other factors that help explain why the civilian opposition is weak. More than half of Chile's 10.5 million people were too young to have voted in 1970, leaving them with no real political identity. Allende's regime also caused many Chileans to feel disaffected by politics - a sentiment that continues today.

About these ads

Many Chileans say they see few clear leaders in the country. Thirty percent of Chileans say their nation has no leaders at all, according to a survey Allamand says his party commissioned. The business weekly Estrategia says the only national figure identified as influential by at least 1 out of 5 Chileans is Don Francisco, Chilean television's mixture of Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson.

Some say the military has manipulated the image of civilian politicians - not wanting Chileans to think there are viable civilian leaders.

''By definition, a dictatorship is going to try to destroy leadership,'' says Genaro Arriagada, a political scientist and adviser to the Christian Democrats, the largest party and key group in the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Arriagada blames government control of the media for much of the civilians' image problem. Chile's national television network smears opposition politicians nightly, he says. And most newspapers are so indebted to the government that they don't dare write positively about its opponents, he asserts. Mr. Arriagada and others say Chile still has a number of capable political leaders, many of them young and unhampered by party rhetoric.

Most criticism is aimed at the Christian Democrats. For years, some analysts say, the Christian Democrats waited to take power from a military government it assumed would leave of its own accord. And the party's demands have been unrealistic since it helped form the Democratic Alliance in August 1983, thus blocking any strong opposition consensus to emerge, they say.

The alliance offered ''a nonnegotiable product (for a transition to civilian rule) already made and packaged'' to the government, says lawyer and political scientist Juan Yrarrazaval. The result was that talks with the government were short-lived. Until recently the alliance refused to allow rightist parties to play any significant role in forming a political consensus, he says.

But Mr. Yrarrazaval and others say the alliance has become more realistic of late. He says there is some possibility that a broader coalition, including socialists and center-right parties, may agree within the next few months on such critical questions as the future role of the armed forces in a democratic government.

''There's going to be a gigantic force for political accord among all the parties, from the National Union to the Socialist Party,'' Yrarrazaval predicts.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.