VALPARAISO, CHILE — The new congress building, like the body it is to house, could hardly avoid becoming a chess piece in the civilian-military match now taking shape. Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte envisioned the legislature in his 1980 constitution as a relatively weak consultative body serving a powerful president, namely himself. Critics said locating the congress 110 kilometers (68 miles) away from Santiago would transform it into a debating society, while the real decisions were taken back in the capital by the executive apparatus.
But all that changed when voters rebuffed General Pinochet's plans to stay in power in a 1988 yes-or-no plebiscite. Chileans followed by electing opposition leader Patricio Aylwin as president last Dec. 14. The reborn congress took on new importance as the outgoing regime's first line of defense against any attempt to dismantle the system left in place.
Despite a drubbing in the popular vote, Pinochet's supporters still control the Senate (25-22) in the bicameral body. The 1980 constitution provides for nine senators to be handpicked by Pinochet, the ruling junta, and the pro-Pinochet supreme court.
Democratic forces won a 72-48 majority in the lower house.
Pinochet's other major public works showcase is the 1,000-kilometer (620 mile) Austral Highway that links remote, sparsely populated regions in the far south of Chile. The highway was also conceived as a boost to regional development.