The Military Vote

By Meneses, Emilio | The World Today, December 1999 | Go to article overview

The Military Vote


Meneses, Emilio, The World Today


Emilio Meneses

One of the dominant forces in this month's Chilean presidential election is several thousand of miles away from the polling booths. The case of former President, General Augusto Pinochet, under house arrest in Britain pending possible extradition to Spain on charges of human rights abuse, is responsible for increasing support for a right wing candidate. It is also raising again the question of the special arrangements the General put in place before retreating to the barracks.

ALMOST TEN YEARS AFTER THE RETURN TO DEMOCRACY, the Chilean political system is at last experiencing long-term change. The military regime of 1973-1990 interfered with party dynamics and distorted the evolution of democracy for almost twenty years.

The Concertacion Democratica, a coalition of centre and leftist parties, including Christian Democrats and Socialists, effortlessly won the 1989 presidential elections and repeated its success in 1993.

The political spectrum has been divided in three since the nineteen sixties: as long as two-thirds - centre and left - were in coalition they would elect a president and obtain a majority in Congress. It seems that this is now ripe for change, with an emerging bipolar system of several parties in coalition. Chilean politics is consequently likely to become more stable in the long term.

GUARDIANS OR ENEMIES

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the campaign is the wider role of the armed forces. The Pinochet regime left the military shielded by a close knit legal net. Aside from their role as constitutional guardians, which allows them to judge the state of political affairs, commanders in chief enjoy a fix term of four years, are in full control of force deployment, promotion, financial arrangements and education in their respective services. Their finances are protected by two laws enshrined in the constitution dating from 1985 and 1990.

Because of troop concentrations in some coastal and frontier electoral districts, they are crucial in electing conservative congressmen - the so-called military vote.

Independent and well known, the heads of the armed forces have become political figures, making news headlines. Pinochet's detention has given additional salience to their public statements, reaching a point where they seem to have their own foreign policy.

As a result of this, and unresolved human rights abuse cases going back to the military period, wide sectors on the left of the political spectrum see the armed forces not as legitimate state institutions but rather as political enemies in collusion with the conservative parties. This deeply felt perception has added a good degree of poison to Chilean political life.

CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION

There are six parties in Parliament. Two of them on the right are now in opposition: The Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and National Renovation (RN). With similar electoral strength, together they command one third of the popular vote. This coalition, the Union for Chile, suffers from a Cain and Abel syndrome similar to that affecting French conservatives.

The more nationalistic party (RN) is positioned towards the centre, having a so-called liberal wing that has suffered a recent lack of support because of internal problems. The better-disciplined UDI with strong Catholic backing, is more conservative. It portrays itself as heir to the military regime's economic policy and has experienced recent electoral growth.

Chile's 'binon-tinal system', elects. to Parliament the two frontrunners in every district. This has given the conservatives disproportionate numbers in both houses. Thus, for a decade, no bill needing more than simple majority has been able to become law without conservative approval. Both parties have agreed to support Joaquin Lavin, mayor of Las Condes, Chile's wealthiest county, as presidential candidate.

The governing Concertacion Democratica includes four parties. …

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