MORE than 7 million Chileans have registered to participate in the single-candidate presidential plebiscite set for October. The huge voter sign-up in this nation of 12 million guarantees that the poll will determine Chile's political map for years to come. The registration rate may surpass 90 percent of all eligible voters. It is a record in Chile's long electoral history and reflects the importance of the vote in the minds of citizens.
The vote amounts to a yes-or-no vote for eight more years of rule by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the same Army commander who seized power in a bloody coup from the Socialist-led coalition government of Salvador Allende Gossens in 1973. General Pinochet is universally expected to be the sole candidate of the armed forces. The four commanders-in-chief will meet Aug. 30 to make their formal choice.
A no vote would require a general election within one year.
Pinochet has accelerated his trips around the nation to shore up support, urging Chileans to cast their vote for ``modernization'' and reject the ``political hacks'' who are opposing him from a 16-party ``No Coalition.''
In a series of interviews less than six weeks before the vote's rumored date (Oct. 5), both government backers and the civilian opposition predict a tight finish. Both sides say they will win by a six- or eight-point margin.
Scores of research groups and consultants have been polling Chileans about their attitudes toward the plebiscite. Their polls show the major cities set to reject Pinochet's bid, while provincial capitals and rural areas are expected to vote yes.
Urban shantytowns have long been hotbeds of opposition to the military regime, and the educated middle classes have led the ideological battle against Pinochet. Opposition views are generally available in the country's major cities, while in more remote regions state-owned television and pro-regime newspapers have a virtual monopoly.
But despite all the predictions, surveys, and journalistic guesswork that has dominated the news here for months, even the pollsters admit that no one really knows what will happen when voters enter the booths in the first real electoral contest under military rule.
``The voters' real intentions are impossible to predict,'' says Eduardo Hamuy, a pollster with a good record in past elections. ``People are afraid. They think their personal and family security is at stake. ... The many `undecided' voters in the polls ... are people who are scared to say how they will vote.''
Part of the confusion stems from the tendency of each poll-taking organization to frame its questions to match its bias. Opposition-backed polls show that a larger number of voters intend to vote no than yes; government-leaning polls show the reverse.
Nonetheless, at least one member of the ruling junta is sounding as if he takes the possibility of a no victory seriously. In an interview with the Monitor, Police Commander Gen. Rodolfo Stange said he would be disposed to ``reach an accord'' with opposition leaders if the government candidate loses.
Gen. Stange did not rule out discussions of anything on the opposition's negotiation agenda, including the powerful role for the armed forces written into the 1980 Constitution.
[Another junta member, Chilean Air Force commander Fernando Matthei Aubel, told the New York Times last month that he considered a return to democracy inevitable. General Matthei, who is known as a critic of PInochet, argued that the choice facing voters was ``not dictatorship or democracy; either road leads to democracy.'' Matthei has called for an election instead of a plebiscite.]
Many observers believe that only the Army unconditionally favors Pinochet's candidacy. The other branches of the military are said to be going along unenthusiastically. The Roman Catholic bishops' recent call for a ``consensus candidate'' - implying someone other than Pinochet - was meant to strengthen the junta's bargaining position, say well-placed sources.
Military looks for concession
No one expects Pinochet to lose the nomination process. But some hope the junta can exact something in return - specifically a pledge from him to step down as Army chief and assume the presidency next March as a civilian. [Military leaders worry that a rejection of a non-civilian Pinochet would look like a rejection of the armed forces.]
Meanwhile, government opponents are criticizing restrictions on opposition use of the media. Television, the main source of information for most Chileans, remains tightly controlled by the regime. Newscasts paint official acts in glowing terms and associate opponents with violence and terrorism.
Main channels have aired ads lauding achievement in health, public works, and education for months while refusing all non-government spots as ``political.'
Regime spokesmen also have convinced many Chileans that great economic progress has occurred through its export-oriented policies. Chile sells huge quantities of fruit, fish, and wood overseas. These sectors are growing at 20 percent or more annually. But critics note that the benefits of these impressive figures reach few Chileans.