CHILE has taken a vital step in its return to democracy. Chileans said ``no'' Wednesday to another eight years of rule by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The vote opens the way for presidential elections in December 1989; the new president would take office the following March.
Both sides take credit for the pragmatism they displayed, sometimes grudgingly.
The government gave its opponents unprecedented - though still limited - access to government-controlled media. It allowed exiles to return to vote. For the most part, harassment of opposition political rallies was minimal. Noticeable by their absence were accusations of government vote fraud. When the trends in Wednesday's balloting became clear, the government quickly conceded defeat; official totals weren't to be released until today.
The opposition beat General Pinochet under his own lopsided ground rules, contained in a Constitution approved in a 1980 plebiscite widely regarded as fraudulent. The 16-party coalition maintained unusual unity. It kept discipline over rallies and over post-balloting celebrations, defusing the image of chaos and fear Pinochet tried to create as the outcome of a vote against him.
Credit also is due US Ambassador Harry G. Barnes Jr., a courageous advocate of democracy and human rights for Chile. In 1986, he endured the ire of US Sen. Jesse Helms for attending the funeral of an anti-Pinochet protester who had been set afire by government troops. He kept up pressure for free and open campaigning, fraud-free balloting, and maturity and competence among members of the anti-Pinochet coalition.