This is part 1 of a three-part series on the 1988 plebiscite in Chile – A New Constitution
This week 33 years ago, the people of Chile voted in a democratic plebiscite to end the 16 year dictatorship of Army General Augusto Pinochet. Held on October 5th, 1988, the Chilean plebiscite is one of the most astonishing examples of a non-violent return to civilian democratic rule post-dictatorship. On this auspicious day, not only did Chilean history change forever, but so did the world’s understanding of democracy itself.
Despite being under the rule of a military dictatorship and with complete uncertainty as to the validity of the plebiscite, seven million people exercised their civic right to vote for the first time in a decade and a half.
55.99% of the voters chose to say NO to the continuation of Pinochet’s rule and 44.01% voted YES. Chileans had confirmed that they were ready to transform their country. Over the last three decades, a neoteric Chile has immerged and persistently grown on an internationally relevant scale.
Pinochet’s Rise to Power and the 1980 Constitution
On September 11th, 1973, Chilean armed forces seized control of the country in a violent coup d’état, deposing the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. That same evening, Army General Augusto Pinochet, together with an Air Force General, a Navy Admiral and the Chief of Police had created and sworn in a junta, a government formed by a military committee.
The junta was established as Chile’s ruling body, suspending the 1925 Constitution and Congress. However, at these early stages, the junta was not intended to become a military dictatorship since it sought only to restore order before returning to civilian rule. The four members had agreed to rotate office every four years selecting Pinochet as the first leader.
Conversely, Pinochet took the opportunity of being the first to power to do away with the idea of a rotating presidency, citing it as a potential administrative nightmare. A mere six month after taking power, Pinochet stated that he had done away with any plans to return to civilian rule and declared himself the Supreme Leader of the nation.
A new constitution
In 1980, the Pinochet government drafted a new constitution which followed in the lines of the Cold War National Security Doctrine (NSD). The NSD meant to establish a ‘protected democracy,’ one that limits political pluralism and allows for military control over civilian authorities. Pinochet saw this new constitution as a means to not only maintain, but also legitimize his rule domestically as well as internationally.
This constitution, voted through a referendum of disputed legitimacy, stated, in Article 25, that a President of the Republic could not hold office for longer than eight years. This was the necessary catalyst that allowed for the 1988 plebiscite in which the public would have the democratic right to vote.
Despite his best attempts to retain unchecked dictatorial power, Article 25 of the 1980 constitution was a testament to the mounting international pressure that could no longer be ignored. Throughout the 1970s, the United States had considered South America an invaluable battleground against the communist influence and had thus supported the right-wing groups in the 1973 military coup against a democratically elected president.
Nonetheless, the 1980’s saw a brave new world that brought about many global changes. The Cold War was at a turning point with Mikhail Gorbachev initiating glasnost and the perestroika democratic reforms, which surmounted in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. During his visit to Chile in April 1987, Pope John Paul II strongly criticized Pinochet’s presidency as “dictatorial,” calling for an active restoration of democracy. According to the Pope’s secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope went as far as confronting Pinochet and calling on him to step down and transfer power over to civilian authorities.
Internal pressure was also mounting. In 1982, Chile experienced a massive economic crisis, the worst since the 1930 Great Depression. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) fell 14.3% and unemployment was an astounding 23.7%. Massive protests ensued. Finally, the commanders-in-chief of the Air Forces, the Navy and the Police no longer wanted to support the junta and called for a return to civilian rule.
The world and the Chilean public looked to Pinochet to legitimize his presidency, leaving him with little choice other than a democratic vote, of which the result had to be respected. Consequently, on September 5th, 1987, a month before the plebiscite, the opposition’s political advertisements supporting the NO campaign were legalized.
Tomorrow in “From Dictatorship to Democracy – What did the ´88 referendum bring Chile?”:
Part 2 – The ´YES and ´NO´ campaigns
Born in Ukraine but raised in Canada since a young age, Kateryna Kurdyuk has since acquired a Masters of Media Studies and Communication from University of Melbourne in Australia and worked in the education field in Dubai, UAE. While currently working as an English Professor in Santiago, Chile, Kateryna is using her extensive experience living and travelling abroad to contribute as a writer to the emerging independent English-language media in Chile.