By sheer numbers, Chilean youth could determine the outcome of next Wednesday's vote on the continued rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Forty percent of all voters are between 18 and 25 years of age - and the majority of them opposes General Pinochet.
The most recent poll - taken the second week of September and published Monday - shows that 55 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds oppose Pinochet; while 18 percent support him. The remaining 27 percent are undecided, had no response, or said they wouldn't vote.
``Young voters are less afraid,'' explains pollster Eduardo Hamuy, who correctly predicted the positions of the three presidential candidates in Chile's last election in 1970. ``They don't hide their preferences. But they also tend to say the vote doesn't matter because Pinochet will win no matter what.''
The 16-party opposition coalition working to defeat Pinochet has concentrated much of its activity on youth, aware that victory is impossible without pulling this pivotal sector into the electoral process.
Chilean youth bear the brunt of the military regime's negative features. Unemployment hits them hard, and 70 percent of the victims of human rights abuses are under 30, according to the Roman Catholic human rights office.
Not surprisingly, youth make up the vast majority of the crowds at ``no'' rallies and street skirmishes with riot police.
The plebiscite has been framed in ``yes'' or ``no'' terms. If the ``yes'' votes win, there will be eight more years of Pinochet rule - 24 in all. Should the ``no'' votes win a majority, Pinochet must call multicandidate elections within a year. But he would remain commander-in-chief of the military in any case.
The regime also has its defenders among young people. The two sides have clashed with increasing frequency in the tense pre-plebiscite period.
Polls suggest that age along with social class are probably the primary vote determinants here.
Many families are divided between an older generation, which remembers with alarm the hardships of Salvador Allende's Socialist government of 1970-73, and children who have only heard of those days. Voters younger than 25 barely remember Allende, overthrown by Pinochet in a bloody 1973 coup.
``I can hardly visit my family anymore,'' says Alejandro Moya from the fruit-producing region of Curico south of the capital. ``They are all for Pinochet because of the boom in fruit exports, but I'm voting `no.' The last time I joined them for Sunday dinner, my father called me a communist, and I left the table crying. I caught the bus without saying goodbye.''
A series of impromptu interviews in two locations - Paseo Los Leones, a fancy shopping district in the rich section of Santiago, and the Central Station, a popular flea market across town in a poor neighborhood - revealed that youngsters from comfortable origins tend to support Pinochet, while poor youth reject him. Though there are exceptions.
``Yes'' voters found in Paseo Los Leones consistently lived in middle-class districts nearby. ``No'' voters came from more modest barrios to work or shop. The reasons given for their preferences varied greatly.
Marcela, a store clerk, supports the opposition because of ``the abuses, especially against working people. You have to work on Sundays, and they pay so little.''
Her friend, Carolina, works in the same store but supports Pinochet. ``That depends on the companies, not the government. Chilean people are lazy. They want everything handed to them, rather than trying to get ahead though their own efforts.''
``Even so, that doesn't justify unfairness,'' says a third companion, Viviana, shifting from economic to political complaints. ``You can't say what you think here. You can be arrested or beaten up.''
Manuel, 16, whose school is nearby, can't vote but strongly favors the ``no.'' ``I see the poverty where I live, the people without work, without enough to eat. The government's propaganda is pure lies.''
Saturdays on Paseo Los Leones have become a battleground as ``yes'' and ``no'' boosters clash in what has often become all-out brawls. Some local workers have been shocked by police behavior, another sore point for the regime.
``Last Saturday, it was war out here,'' says Janet. ``The cops climbed out of their buses and beat people with their sticks, hitting them in the head just for shouting things. We were pretty shocked.'' Janet says she'll vote ``no.''
But a more typical Paseos Los Leones shopper, Veronica, thinks Pinochet ``has done very well. He's gotten us out of big problems and achieved a lot in 15 years. You can't just throw that away.''
While pro-government youth are convinced Chile is better off economically, human rights remains a touchy issue. ``I'm concerned about the things that are covered up,'' says Claudio, a ``yes'' partisan, but too young to vote. ``Killings and so forth - you never really know what a government like this is doing.''
Meanwhile, at the Central Station in the less prosperous part of town, ``no'' buttons proliferate among passers-by, and vendors say ``yes'' buttons sell badly. Here, scare stories about the Allende years fall flat.
``I just arrived from La Serena [in northern Chile],'' says Jos'e Miguel, a student. ``Here you really see how bad things are, the poverty. The government's whole argument is about the old days, but that's not the issue. It's about returning to democracy.''
``It really bugs me how they're forcing people to vote `yes,''' continues his companion, Mariela. ``In my high school, the director called all the older girls together and said if we didn't vote ``yes,'' we'd do badly in the college entrance exam.''
But in the poorer section, apathy and ignorance are more common. ``I didn't register because it doesn't interest me,'' answers one girl breezily. ``It won't affect me either way.''
A conservative sector also exists among the poor, women such as Patricia and Ana Laura, both waitresses at a local cafe. ``We're more secure now,'' says the former. ``There's not much money, but at least there are things to buy in the shops. People who don't have work just haven't gone to look for it.''
``We can walk safely in the street,'' says Ana Laura. ``I feel good with this government. We're more secure in our jobs, not pressured.''
Marlena, an engineering student, strikes a balanced view, after initial hesitation. ``You can say when the military government came in, it was a good thing. But now it's been 15 years. That's enough. It's time for us to go back to democracy, for things to be normal.''