The members of Chile's military junta meet today to choose their candidate for the coming presidential plebiscite that will determine the country's political landscape for years to come. Chileans will then go to the polls to vote ``yes'' or ``no'' for that candidate, who is universally expected to be current strong man, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Although the date for the plebiscite has not been set, it is expected to be held on Oct. 5.
The significance citizens attach to the plebiscite is evident from the mass voter registration of recent months. More than 7 million Chileans - some 90 percent of eligible voters - are now registered, a record in Chile's long electoral history. Registration has been pushed by the regime, by the Roman Catholic Church, and by 16 opposition parties which are united in a coalition urging citizens to vote ``no.'' Should the ``no'' vote win, General Pinochet remains in office, but would have to call multi-candidate elections within a year.
Although the junta only names its choice today, Pinochet as well as the opposition have been actively campaigning for months. Despite the numerous opinion surveys and journalistic guesswork that have dominated the news here for weeks, even the pollsters admit that no one knows what's going to happen when voters enter the booths in the first real electoral contest since 1970.
``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 I believe are people who are scared to say how they will vote.''
Nonetheless, at least one member of the ruling junta is sounding as if he takes the possibility that Pinochet will lose seriously. In an interview, police commander Gen. Rodolfo Stange said he would be disposed to ``reach an accord'' with opposition leaders if the government candidate were to lose. General Stange did not rule out anything on the opposition's agenda as a possible topic for negotiation, not even the powerful role for the armed forces written into the most recent Constitution drawn up by the military and approved by referendum in 1980.
But he emphasized that any post-plebiscite civilian-military talks would take time and would have to be accompanied by ``tranquility and mutual respect.''
Many observers say only the Army unconditionally favors Pinochet's candidacy, while other branches of the military are going along unenthusiastically.
The Catholic bishops recently called for a ``consensus candidate'' - clearly implying someone other than Pinochet. Their call was intended to strengthen the junta's bargaining position in the pre-nomination period, well-placed sources say. Some hope the junta, when naming Pinochet, can extract something in return: a promise from him to step down as Army chief if he wins, and assume the presidency next March as a civilian.
Opposition strategists are trying to generate an air of normalcy and triumph in their campaign. They want to convince voters that victory is a real possibility.
Street-corner meetings and canvassing are common weekend activities. The ``no'' coalition's radio ads feature light jingles that assert: ``We're going to win!'' Their campaign emphasizes that a ``no'' victory will bring an orderly return to democracy.
The pro-Pinochet campaign takes the opposite approach, insisting that a ``no'' will mean chaos and a return to the socialist policies of the previous civilian government of Salvador Allende Gossens.
Pinochet has accelerated his frequent trips around the country to shore up support, urging Chileans to cast their vote for ``modernization'' and reject the ``political hacks'' who are opposing him.
In an unprecedented move Saturday, the government ended the states of emergency that have been in force since Pinochet took power 15 years ago.
In a series of interviews, both government backers and the civilian opposition predict a tight finish in October. Both sides say they will win by a six- or eight-point margin. Polls show the major cities are set to reject Pinochet's bid for another eight years in power while provincial capitals and rural areas are expected to support the current ruler.
The sprawling 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, generally available in the major cities, are not often expressed in more remote areas where state-owned TV and pro-regime newspapers have a virtual monopoly.