A FAIRLY uncontroversial plebiscite on constitutional reforms, to be held here Sunday, masks a hard-fought battle over the shape of Chile's democratic future. Head of state Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte bowed to pressure and agreed last month to a set of 54 changes to the Constitution in readiness for elections in December. Both pro- and anti-government political parties have endorsed the package, and popular approval is expected to be overwhelming.
The most important features of the reform include a modification of the system of constitutional amendment, reduction of the formal powers of the armed forces' commanders, a reduction in the number of senators appointed rather than elected to parliament, and a slight easing of the prohibition on Marxist parties.
Although Pinochet's hard-line backers viewed the 54 changes as unpalatable concessions, the more left-wing opposition groups see the current reforms as only the first step toward an overhaul of Pinochet's system.
But the July 30 vote is only a warm-up for the real contest which will take place on Dec. 14, when Chileans elect a new president and parliament for the first time in almost 20 years. Pinochet dissolved the Chilean Congress at the time of his 1973 coup d''etat against socialist President Salvador Allende Gossens.
Polls consistently show opposition candidate Patricio Aylwin winning easily. They also indicate a solid parliamentary majority for the anti-government Coalition Parties for Democracy (CPPD).
Meanwhile, the pro-government side is floundering, unable to agree on its presidential standard-bearer. The logical choice, veteran politician Sergio Onofre Jarpa, is resisted by Pinochet's more right-wing followers and many business leaders, who won't finance his campaign.
Mr. Jarpa, a former Pinochet minister, actively pushed the opposition-initiated constitutional reforms to guarantee long-term stability and to forestall even more radical changes in the event of an opposition electoral sweep.
But tactical retreat seems not to be part of Pinochet's political lexicon. His current favorite is his former finance minister, Hern'an B"uchi, the darling of Chile's business community. Mr. B"uchi was propelled into politics by a group of wealthy backers not satisfied with Jarpa's prospects for a respectable second-place finish. They spent huge sums on a propaganda blitz to promote B"uchi's candidacy, continuing to do so even after B"uchi had announced his decision not to run.
In his first incarnation as a presidential hopeful, B"uchi attempted to distance himself from Pinochet, meeting with human-rights groups and formulating his own proposals on constitutional changes. These initiatives drew an icy response from Pinochet, whose influence is still key in right-wing circles.
When B"uchi reappeared two weeks ago to enter the race, he seemed virtually indistinguishable from his former boss. At his July 13 candidacy ceremony, B"uchi led in singing the second verse of the national anthem - lines added by the regime after the 1973 coup - which democratic groups now refuse to sing.
The fight among Chile's conservatives over who will represent them reflects a deeper conflict over how to face the transition period. ``Jarpa has a historical vision of the right's interests,'' says one opposition analyst. ``He knows that the party has gone on too long.''
Jarpa's program, calling for more spending on health and education and higher minimum wages, actually bears some similarity to the opposition's. B"uchi's promise of more of the same is popular only among the minority sectors prospering under the current economic model.
Democratic forces have little fear of B"uchi as a candidate, but the conservative intransigence reflected in his campaign worries them. If he leads the right to ignominious defeat in December, business leaders, the armed forces, and others worried by the advent of democracy may find themselves with no credible vehicle to protect their interests - except Pinochet himself.