Political parties, outlawed under Chile's military regime, will be legalized by March 11 in anticipation of the 1990 parliamentary elections, says Gen. Fernando Matthei Aubel, one of four members of the governing junta. This is the government's first public commitment to an exact date for beginning to liberalize the country's political activity.
In an interview with the Monitor, General Matthei, who acknowledges that he is a frequent voice of dissent on the junta, also criticized government arrests and censorship under the state of siege called here last week. His comments indicate that the reported divisions of recent months within the regime persist even after last week's assassination attempt on President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
Matthei also criticized the democratic opposition for not making a clean break with communist groups, and firmly denied any possibility of constitutional reform that would allow presidential elections before 1989.
The legalization of political parties is one of several specific steps the United States has been pressuring Chile to take as part of the transition to democracy.
General Matthei said, however, that the timing of the political parties law had been set for six months (though not announced) and was not a reaction to domestic or international pressure.
``To do this before would only have opened the doors for irresponsible attitudes,'' Matthei said, adding that because the 1980 Constitution doesn't call for an open political election until 1990, there has been no need for political parties.
The new law, explained Matthei, will outline qualifications the parties will have to meet to participate, such as minimum membership requirements and methods for selecting leaders.
When told about the new law, opposition leaders expressed criticism.
``The law establishes only a certain kind of participation. Even now we're illegal, but we exist,'' said Claudio Huepe Garc'ia, a vice-president of the Christian Democratic Party, the nation's largest political group. ``I don't think we'd legitimate it [the law] by participating.''
A leader of the Social Democratic Party says that new laws by themselves are not a solution, ``because they only institutionalize the political Constitution of 1980 . . .,'' which the opposition doesn't agree with. Changes to the Constitution are what is called for, the party leader says.
Matthei, commander in chief of Chile's Air Force, said that the closure of opposition magazines and arrests of democratic opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights officials under the state of siege ``hurts the government more than the opposition.''
Decisions on these activities, he says, are made ``one or two levels'' below the ruling junta.
``The democratic opposition is apart [from terrorism] . . . they would never use weapons, and they weren't worth arresting,'' said Matthei. The arrest and closures ``were completely senseless.''
Matthei took great care to explain the junta's fervent anticommunist motives. The communist threat has been key to the regime's justification for keeping a firm grip on the Chilean government for the 13 years since its coup against Marxist President Salvador Allende Gossens.
``All the problems we have today stem from the single fact that the parties that supported Allende could not agree that the first duty of democracy is to defend it against antidemocratic systems [like the Marxism of Allende],'' he said.
``The opposition [groups] today are the same shortsighted gentlemen who turned power over to Allende,'' he added.
Matthei said he meets ``continuously'' and ``unofficially'' with democratic opposition leaders.
The centrist Democratic Alliance [of political parties] and signers of the National Accord would be more effective if they clearly distanced themselves from communist groups, he said.
General Matthei cites the Democratic Alliance's tacit approval of public demonstrations under the banner of the Civic Assembly, an umbrella organization that includes extreme leftist groups. (The Civic Assembly was responsible for the very successful national strike of July 2 and 3.)
Though there has been domestic and international pressure on the regime for a quicker return to civilian rule than called for in the 1980 military-designed Constitution, Matthei said the junta ``will not back down'' on the letter of the existing law. The law calls for a yes or no vote in 1989 on a military-selected candidate for president, followed in 1990 by open parliamentary elections.
Asked whom the junta is leaning toward as a presidential candidate, Matthei said: ``We haven't sat together and discussed this crucial issue. We all think it's premature.''
He added: ``I'm fully convinced [Pinochet] will not twist the rules'' in order to remain in office past the time the junta or Chileans want him.