CHILE has taken a vital step in its return to democracy. Chileans said ``no'' Wednesday to another eight years of rule by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The vote opens the way for presidential elections in December 1989; the new president would take office the following March.
Both sides take credit for the pragmatism they displayed, sometimes grudgingly.
The government gave its opponents unprecedented - though still limited - access to government-controlled media. It allowed exiles to return to vote. For the most part, harassment of opposition political rallies was minimal. Noticeable by their absence were accusations of government vote fraud. When the trends in Wednesday's balloting became clear, the government quickly conceded defeat; official totals weren't to be released until today.
The opposition beat General Pinochet under his own lopsided ground rules, contained in a Constitution approved in a 1980 plebiscite widely regarded as fraudulent. The 16-party coalition maintained unusual unity. It kept discipline over rallies and over post-balloting celebrations, defusing the image of chaos and fear Pinochet tried to create as the outcome of a vote against him.
Credit also is due US Ambassador Harry G. Barnes Jr., a courageous advocate of democracy and human rights for Chile. In 1986, he endured the ire of US Sen. Jesse Helms for attending the funeral of an anti-Pinochet protester who had been set afire by government troops. He kept up pressure for free and open campaigning, fraud-free balloting, and maturity and competence among members of the anti-Pinochet coalition.
If Wednesday's vote was a vital step toward a more open political system, it was also the easiest.
Chile's Constitution is a model of exclusionary politics. It allows the military to permeate the government - the governor of the central bank is an Army general. One-third of the Senate is appointed. The president, who has broad rulemaking powers, must approve any changes to the Constitution. Pinochet remains President until 1990. After he leaves office, he retains his Army generalship and his seat on the national security council. He also becomes a senator for life. He will remain an influential, if less visible, player on the Chilean scene.
Pinochet's loss deprives his opponents of their most visible, unifying target. Ideological feuds within and among the political parties have plagued them in the past. Coalition leaders have called on the military to hold a referendum on some of the Constitution's more restrictive provisions. Two opposition goals are to see that all senators are elected and to speed the timetable for electing a new president. There is little reason to think the government will agree to them.
The opposition must not give the government any excuse for a crackdown. The coalition's discipline has been encouraging; that self-control must continue, though, as members field competing candidates for president. The coalition should resist the temptation to overplay its win by calling for quick constitutional reforms. They should apply their successful plebiscite strategy: beat the government by its own rules. This implies, for example, fielding presidential candidates who, whatever their other differences, share similar desires to liberalize the Constitution.