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.