WITH less than a month to go before Chile's historic transition elections, the most important candidate continues to be the one not the ballot: Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Despite defeat in last year's plebiscite on continuing his rule, Chile's strongman is insisting that the armed forces, with himself at their head, must still ``protect'' Chilean democracy. To that end, his ruling junta has set about hamstringing the incoming civilian president with a range of deep structural changes and locking Pinochet loyalists into key jobs.
Too, a sudden outbreak of criminal assaults - some of them committed by off-duty police officers - is creating nervousness about last-minute attempts to disrupt the Dec. 14 elections. Opposition candidates are expected to sweep to a decisive victory.
The latest moves by the lame-duck military regime include:
Granting the Central Bank autonomy from the incoming president, thus shifting enormous discretion over economic power to Pinochet appointees.
A special law to cut the civilian authority out of any role in military affairs.
Sell-off of the state television network and official newspaper to private owners.
Long-term appointments in the state copper company.
Job guarantees for high-ranking civil servants.
Virtual amnesty for all Pinochet-era government functionaries.
In a key reshuffle of his top Army generals in October, General Pinochet rewarded overtly political officers at the expense of those seen as back-to-the-barracks professionals. Especially worrisome for civilians was the sacking of Vice-Commander Gen. Jorge Zincke, who last October resisted eleventh-hour attempts to prevent the lost plebiscite after Pinochet's defeat became obvious.
Others promoted to top slots include several generals with links to the feared security services. Pinochet also announced plans to reintegrate secret police agents into the armed forces where they will have special protection from prosecution.
``If they touch one of my men, that's the end of the rule of law!'' thundered the commander-in-chief in a recent speech.
Leaders of the 17-party Democratic Covenant (CPPD), virtually guaranteed to win the presidency and a congressional majority in the December vote, are concerned about both the flurry of laws to frustrate popular will and the signs of desperation from intransigent Pinochet backers.
``It's inconceivable to have a democratic regime in which the president cannot remove the commanders-in-chief,'' said Sergio Bitar, a former mining minister and leader of the Party for Democracy (PPD). Mr. Bitar says the opposition is firmly united behind the idea of repealing Pinochet's laws.
The CPPD coalition must maintain an iron unity and win converts from potential allies among the right-wing parties to put together the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional overhaul. Despite the expected opposition win, the electoral system - in which both first- and second-place finishers get a seat - favors the pro-Pinochet minority.
In addition, 10 of the 46 senators will not be elected at all, but chosen from among the supreme court, armed forces, and retired government functionaries.
The size of the expected opposition victory will be a key factor. Its presidential candidate, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, seems headed for a first-round win in the three-way race, but polls differ on whether he will better the 55 percent of voters who said ``no'' to Pinochet in 1988.
The dictator's former finance minister, Hernan Buchi, is second, at around 30 percent in the polls, while the peculiar campaign of right-wing populist businessman Francisco Javier Errazuriz garners about 10 percent.
With pro-Pinochet forces' electoral prospects so bleak, opposition strategists say last-minute attempts to interfere with the elections cannot be ruled out. Suspicions were aroused by the rash of bank robberies and armed assaults that have plagued Santiago in recent months.
The Chilean human rights commission suggested that the regime might be trying to undermine police commander Gen. Rodolfo Stange and force him from the four-man junta before the vote. Opposition sources say General Stange is determined to defend the electoral process and bring the country through the transition smoothly.
Last-minute assassination attempts are being taken seriously, too. In the last week before the vote, a candidate cannot be replaced according to the current election law. Aylwin is expected to make no public appearances during that period.