Chile's strong man, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, once the target of mass internal protests, appears to be readying an electoral campaign to perpetuate his rule. What's more, he looks fully capable of winning it.
In recent weeks the 71-year-old autocrat has replaced mayors, ordered a speed-up in government-subsidized housing construction, sent military personnel to register to vote, set in motion dozens of public works projects, shifted a television executive and propaganda expert to his personal staff, and announced limits to the powers of the secret police.
Many politicians and much of the local news media see the steps as signs that Mr. Pinochet's presidential campaign is shifting into high gear.
Pinochet himself has been silent or noncommittal on the possibility of running for a new eight-year term in the presidential plebiscite scheduled sometime before in the early months of 1989.
But he claimed in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde that his government now enjoys the support of 40 percent of the people. This strength, Pinochet said, is ``more than sufficient to win the plebiscite because at the last moment the mass of undecided will go with the winner.''
Meanwhile, his subalterns have been less reticent. Gen. Lu'is Serre, subsecretary for regional development, broke the ice by expressing the opinion that Pinochet was ``the best choice for 1989,'' since the political parties were divided.
According to the Constitution written by the military regime and ratified in a 1980 plebiscite, the four-member government junta must choose a single presidential nominee to stand in a yes-or-no referendum.
The junta, composed of the commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Police, must reach a unanimous decision within 48 hours of the start of their deliberations. If they cannot, the nomination process moves to a national security council to which Pinochet not only belongs but also personally appoints half the members.
Government opponents have criticized the entire system as not conducive to a real democratic transition. But they have been unable to fashion a credible alternative. Longstanding ideological differences and personal ambition, as politicians themselves admit, have prevented the civilian opposition from posing a real challenge to Pinochet.
Observers say they believe Pinochet is planning ahead to gain adherents among the generally hostile poor sectors of Chilean society, who have suffered most from the country's economic troubles.
The announcement of more subsidized houses - 15,000 new units above those already planned for this year - pleased this group. And road improvement projects around Santiago, the capital city, have blossomed to such a degree that one morning newspaper suggested a cut back in the projects to ease traffic tie-ups.
To ease international human rights criticism, Pinochet has proposed that the feared National Information Center (CNI), the secret police, close its detention centers.
Government officials also note with pride the sharp drop in unemployment figures coinciding with Chile's partial recovery from the deep recession of 1982-83.
Dissident economists say the statistics are distorted because of a change in measuring methods, but the depression-level joblessness of a few years ago appears to have eased.
This partial recovery, accompanied by relatively low inflation, has reversed the crisis atmosphere that prevailed during the massive street protests that rocked the regime in 1983.
Economic stability and the disarray among the opposition lead some observers to speculate that Pinochet may push the plebiscite ahead to 1988.
According to one published report, military families are being instructed that they must register to vote. The voting registers are being reconstructed for the first time since they were burned in the 1973 coup. A snap election call could catch the regime's adversaries without an electoral strategy.
The country's largest opposition party, the Christian Democrats, has yet to decide whether to register the party under the junta's political party law that took effect in March.
Meanwhile, about half a million of a potential 8 million voters are now registered. Many of the most destitute - who would be most likely to oppose the Pinochet candidacy - may be unable to vote since they cannot afford to pay for the prerequisite new national identity card.
The national television network provides Pinochet with a powerful tool as well. He recently brought its former director, Manfredo Mayol, into his Cabinet. This generated speculation that Mr. Mayol would be charged with overseeing electoral propaganda. Independents now have access to television for the first time, but at a cost of about $3,000 per minute of prime time - a small fortune in Chile.
For those voters not convinced by government largesse or publicity, there remains the possibility of coercion.
``It won't cost the government anything to check where the official candidate lost and take reprisals against that neighborhood,'' says lawyer Jos'e Galiano, a Christian Democrat.
One former government insider says manipulative techniques bordering on psychological warfare should also be expected. For example, during one antigovernment protest in 1985, poor sections throughout the capital were abuzz with rumors that neighboring gangs were set to use the disorders to ransack private homes.
Sudden violent incidents could be used by the General to portray the electoral choice as one between himself and chaos.