US wants Chileans to have a free choice in fall plebiscite

The United States is firing salvos in support of Chile's transition to democracy: Last week, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution urging the Chilean government to ensure a fair and free climate for this fall's presidential plebiscite. Chileans will vote for or against the military's candidate to lead the move toward democracy. The Reagan administration strongly supports the resolution and the specific steps it recommends.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana head a newly formed ``US Committee to Support Free Elections in Chile.'' The committee will support two observer missions to Chile by the International Human Rights Law Group, one before and one during the plebiscite.

Secretary of State George Shultz met with Chile's foreign minister last week. Mr. Shultz repeated US desires that certain steps should be taken to ensure a free choice by the Chilean people in the fall vote.

Once a very divisive issue in Washington, a wide bipartisan consensus now exists that after 15 years of military rule in Chile the time is ripe for a return to democracy.

Democrats and Republicans agree that the plebiscite, though flawed, is the best available way for the Chilean people to begin that process. The key, informed officials and congressional activists say, is to make sure the field is level for the contest.

Washington is focusing now because Chile's military junta will name its candidate for the vote on Aug. 30. The junta is also circulating a draft plan for campaign rules. It is thought that the junta will set the date for the plebiscite this month, too. Oct. 5 is the expected choice.

President Augusto Pinochet, who has ruled since the military came to power in a bloody coup in 1973, wants to run, US specialists say. And he probably will, they say, despite doubts by his junta colleagues as to the wisdom of it.

In the plebiscite, Chile's voters will be able to vote only for or against the junta's candidate, who would serve eight years as president. If the candidate does not win, there will be competitive presidential and congressional elections within a year.

Even if President Pinochet runs and is defeated, however, he will remain president until new elections and also stay on as commander of the Army until 1993, under the junta's transition plan.

Chile's Roman Catholic bishops last week called on the junta to find a compromise candidate acceptable to the very broad coalition of political parties that are campaigning for a ``no'' vote.

The bishops warned that without a candidate who could impartially oversee the transition to democracy, Chile may be polarized.

Current polls show Pinochet would lose by a small margin, but an alternative civilian candidate would probably win a majority in the plebiscite.

US concerns focus on ensuring that the vote is fair. Specifically, the US wants an end to the states of emergency and siege now in effect and guarantees of free speech, press, and assembly for the duration of the campaign. It wants the opposition to have equitable access to the mass media. Pinochet's government currently monopolizes the TV.

Washington also wants an end to intimidation and threats against opposition activists and journalists. It wants tabulation of the votes under opposition as well as government supervision and access for international observers during the plebiscite.

The US also urges continued registration of eligible voters. So far, more than 6.5 million of Chile's estimated 8 million eligible voters have registered, despite tough requirements imposed by the government.

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