History of Chile

The 1970 Elections Part I – The Failure of the Centrists

The 1970 elections were a turning point in Chilean history. The centrists’ failure led to a divisive election, with the conservatives and socialists facing each other. Even 50 years on, the repercussions of the election keep haunting Chile. Chile Today looks back at a historic election, for Chile and Latin-America.

Cold War era tensions marred the 1970 elections. The incumbent administration of Eduardo Frei, elected in 1964, balanced capitalism and socialism, following a more social-democratic model. These efforts, however, alienated both the left and right leaning members of the centrist coalition.

The political crisis was worsened by the military’s dependence on US funding and arms deals and skyrocketing inflation. This led to pressure from both business and sectors of the military – officially still outside politics – to resolve political deadlock. In that scenario, three major coalitions competed in the primaries, each proposing solutions to navigate the Cold War era.

Eduardo Frei’s Government

President Eduardo Frei Montalva was elected in 1964 with 56% of the votes, beating Salvador Allende who got 39%, and the candidate from the Radical Party, Julio Durán. Frei owed his victory to a centrist-right wing alliance to block socialism in the country, securing the presidency for the newly created Christian Democratic Party (PDC).

Frei’s administration was entirely staffed by members of his party and in the 1965 parliamentary elections, PDC won a majority in both houses of congress. This allowed Frei to pursue his “Revolución en Libertad” (Revolution in Liberty) program, focused on economic development, higher and technical education, social justice, political participation and popular sovereignty.

With the plan, Frei wanted to ease economic anxiety and inequalities to render socialism less attractive for the middle and lower classes. In foreign affairs the government also aimed for neutrality. The president reestablished diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union but also toured the US and West Europe.

Internally, however, a centrist position wasn’t viable. The right, aligned with local and foreign capital, accused the government of pandering to the communists, while the left claimed the plan would still not allow for proper wealth distribution. Public opinion, however, turned against Frei because of an overhaul of the agrarian sector.

Also read:

Eduardo Frei Montalva: Chile´s first progressive president

The Agrarian Reform

The agricultural sector was in deep crisis. Since the 1930s, governments had focused on industrializing urban sectors at the expense of rural localities. Outdated technology and archaic working conditions in the rural areas then triggered massive migration to the cities, leading to falling food production and even reliance on food imports.

Many presidents proposed expropriating unused lands and giving it to farmers that wanted to work it. Although Washington and the Catholic Church supported such measures, only Frei’s administration put them into practice. In 1967, the president signed the expropriation law, also allowing farmers to unionize. The slogan of the time was “la tierra para el que la trabaja”  – the land for those who work it.

By the end of his term, 1,400 farms were seized and over 100,000 farmers were organized in 400 unions. As power shifted from agri-capital to agri-labor, tensions arose. Unions, whose members often worked under slave-like conditions before the reform, fought back and sought to take over farms. As result, especially urban society perceived the situation as spiraling out of control while the right grew disenchanted with the PDC.

Coalition Primaries for the 1970 Elections

But by the time the coalition primaries took place in 1969, the party had also lost key left-wing allies. Izquierda Cristiana de Chile (Christian Left of Chile) and Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitaria (Popular Unitary Action Movement) left the coalition claiming the PDC was neglecting the working class.

Both joined the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) coalition, whose members included the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. After a tense primary, Salvador Allende won in no small part with the help of Pablo Neruda, who led the Communist Party but had no presidential aspirations.

On the other side was former president Jorge Alessandri who ran as an independent with the support of the National Party and the Democratic Radicals, the latter of which split from the Radical Party because it supported Allende. 

Among the general uncertainty, the Christian Democrats chose Radomiro Tomic as presidential candidate. Although unsure at first if the left-leaning Tomic would continue his legacy, Frei supported the candidate for pragmatic reasons – to prevent an Allende presidency. Yet Tomic’s candidacy scared the party’s more conservative members, which became increasingly isolated.

By early 1970, all coalitions had their candidates ready and Radomiro Tomic, Salvador Allende, and Jorge Alessandri prepared for a tough campaign.

Also read:

Eduardo Frei: the highest profile murder from Pinochet´s dictatorship

 

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