The military-backed regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile obviously was confident of victory when it allowed a referendum on giving him power for another eight years. But the people of Chile clearly disagreed by voting this week for democracy instead.
The result is to be applauded, even though Pinochet's regime has been friendly to the United States and staunchly anti-communist. But it has not been a free society and has been often cited for human rights abuses.Voters faced a simple "yes" or "no" proposition. "Yes," meant that Pinochet, whose term expires in 1989, would remain in power, unchallenged through 1997. "No," meant that open elections would be held next year to elect the first civilian president since marxist Salvador Allende won election in 1970. Allende died in the coup that brought Pinochet to power in 1973.
This week's referendum was remarkably free of fraud and violence, according to outside observers. Both the government and the 16-party opposition coalition reported similar results following a partial ballot count. The government said 53.3 percent had voted no, while the opposition group reported 57.6 percent of the voters were voting against Pinochet's continued power.
To his credit, Pinochet accepted the outcome quickly and avoided any Mexican-style delay in the vote count that would have tainted the results. Those results prompted the 16-member cabinet to resign enmasse and the four-member military junta to announce elections for December of 1989 with the winner to take office in March, 1990.
Government leaders have announced their intent to comply with provisions of a constitution passed in 1980 by the military. That constitution provided for this week's referendum vote with the open elections to follow should the voters so dictate. It now becomes a question of whether the government will accede to the wishes of the electorate.
For much of the world, democracy is an ideal hoped for, but one which is as elusive as a dream, coming and going with the night. It is an ideal not easily turned to reality as the people of Burma have found in recent months. For the Burmese, the hope of democracy approached the threshold of reality this summer only to be washed away in a sea of red blood.
Now, for Chileans, the dream too has reached the threshold of reality. Will that dream be lost?
Leaders from around the world have applauded the results of the referendum. Those same leaders should not turn away, but keep a vigilant eye turned to Chile to help ensure that elections are held.
It is to be hoped that the "peer pressure" of other democratic countries will be sufficient to keep the dream alive in Chile and that Chilean citizens will have the opportunity to turn dreams into reality.