When hordes of youthful Humanist Party enthusiasts first showed up at opposition events three years ago with their orange banners, happy-go-lucky attitudes, and wisecracking slogans, old-timers chuckled and dismissed them as a harmless and irrelevant fringe movement. No one is laughing anymore. Today, the Humanist Party is a key element in the 15-party opposition coalition to defeat the government's candidate, expected to be head of state Gen. Augusto Pinochet, in a plebiscite this year. It has legally inscribed more than 70,000 members and has demonstrated its effectiveness in mobilizing a small army of highly-motivated volunteers.
Although their vaguely communitarian-socialist program is hard to pin down, the Humanists' festive, egalitarian, and often raucous style has awakened interest in politics among Chile's youth - especially those too young to remember traditional political activity. (General Pinochet seized power in a 1973 coup.) Much of Chile's youth has been alienated by the old-guard opposition parties' stodginess and prejudiced by the regime's relentless discourse against politics and politicians.
``Political leaders here have been fomenting martyrophilia for far too long,'' says the party's president, Jos'e Tom'as Saenz. ``They think what really counts is how many of your people have been tortured or killed. That only scares people off and immobilizes them.''
Although still no rival for the major Chilean parties such as the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists, the Humanists are gaining ground on a host of minor parties.
Last December, the Humanists became only the second party to register itself with the number of signed affiliates required under Pinochet's new political parties law. Their decision to register was harshly criticized at the time by those who felt it would help legitimize the antidemocratic rules established in the 1980 Constitution.
``We used the registration process to educate people,'' Mr. Saenz argues. ``We rang 1.2 million doorbells ... and explained the plebiscite, the parties, law, everything.''
Their grass-roots work was a powerful stimulus to the campaign to vote against the government in the coming plebiscite, Saenz claims. (Chileans will vote in a yes-or-no ballot for a single candidate put forward by the ruling military junta later this year.)
The Humanists' allies applaud them for getting things done without becoming mired in excessive debate. ``Under a normal situation, I don't think they would have arisen,'' says Germ'an Corea of the Socialist Party which enjoys good relations with the Humanists. ``But they enable people to work against the dictatorship without assuming the stigma of being a Marxist or other dangerous things. They're extremely pragmatic and ready to work.''
The Humanists are more action-oriented than ideological. They mount campaigns which involve large numbers of people in active participation. For example, before they formally became the Humanist Party, they netted a half-million signatures using 5,000 volunteers in 30 days in their 1984 campaign calling for permanent peace with Argentina, says Saenz.
Legwork is the key to the party's rise. In contrast to traditional Chilean parties dominated by senior members and their circles, Humanists move up quickly, based on their success in attracting and orienting new members. ``They offer alternatives for youth and don't discriminate,'' says 19-year-old Jos'e Tapia.
``Some people get into politics because they feel rotten and want to change things, so they scream and shout because they're suffering,'' says Chile's most famous Humanist, songwriter Florcita Motuda. ``But it's better to feel good, that's what drives people to long-term action! We believe in the mystique of happiness!''
This almost therapeutic tone has led observers to wonder if it is really a cult and criticize it for political mushiness. The Humanists call themselves ``New Left'' but are explicitly anti-Marxist and criticize both the Western and Soviet systems. Saenz defines the party vision as a decentralized brand of ``cooperative socialism'' with ``libertarian'' leanings.