Who can best heal Chile? That is the nub of the race that has already begun for the presidential election in 2000.
Front-runner at the moment is longtime Socialist leader Ricardo Lagos, who is expected to win nomination in Sunday's primary of the Concertacon - the governing center-left coalition that includes the Socialist Party, Party for Democracy, and the Christian Democrat Party.
Mr. Lagos launched his bid just months before the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London last October reopened the old wounds of his 17-year military dictatorship. The frenzy over Mr. Pinochet's judicial fate has put front and center the issue of who is most capable of completing the reconciliation process in Chile, resolving the questions of the nation's troubled past, and moving the nation forward. In Chile's polarized landscape between the supporters of the ex- dictator and his detractors, the Lagos candidacy is a highly charged issue. Supporters of Pinochet largely claim that the arrest of the ex- dictator was due to a so-called "socialist conspiracy." The almost McCarthyism-style fears of socialism among some in Chile were a factor that helped lead to a military coup against President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, and the ensuing long list of brutal human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime. Such fears now have a new focus in Lagos. Lagos last year resigned his position as minister of public works in the current Eduardo Frei government in order to pursue the presidency full time. A career academic turned politician, he holds a PhD in economics from North Carolina's Duke University. In the Concertacon primary, Lagos is up against Andrs Zaldvar, the president of the Senate and a founder of the well-organized Christian Democrat Party. Mr. Zaldvar, who trails far behind Lagos in the polls, says that a centrist politician like himself is better suited to lead Chile in this "critical moment." Lagos responds that all that is necessary in order to lead the country through reconciliation and modernization in the next period is to keep the coalition of center-left political parties that are embodied in the Concertacon together. "We as a Concertacon, together with the Christian Democrats, were essential to the defeat of Pinochet 11 years ago," says Lagos on the campaign trail in Valparaiso Wednesday. "We defeated Pinochet in order that human rights and the rule of law are accepted in Chile. The Concertacon is all that is necessary to provide the governability of Chile. …