TODAY Chileans flock to the polls to close the book on 16 years of military rule and reinstate the country's strong democratic tradition. They will choose a new president and a parliament. A massive final opposition rally here Dec. 10, attended by hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters, augured an easy victory for opponents of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's military regime in the historic vote.
Organizers of the rally for presidential candidate Patricio Aylwin said the meeting was the largest gathering of Chileans in the country's history. It even surpassed the celebration in the same Santiago park that followed General Pinochet's defeat in last year's plebiscite on his continued rule. And the turnout for Aylwin also dwarfed that of the Dec. 11 rally for the government candidate, Hern'n B"uchi, a former finance minister.(See story on Page 3).
The air of triumph at the Aylwin rally is backed by polls that consistently give him a first-round majority. If so, Chile will finally have brought down the military dictatorship that began in 1973 with the overthrow of Socialist President Salvador Allende. Thousands died in the aftermath of Pinochet's coup, which had support from the United States.
Mr. Aylwin himself is an apt symbol for the painful process Chile has lived since that year. He was, at the time, president of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), which joined forces with conservatives to encourage the coup, assuming it would be a quick and relatively easy way to restore a centrist government. But as Pinochet's ambitions became clear over the years, the PDC moved into the opposition. In 1988, Aylwin presided over the 16-party coalition that engineered Pinochet's plebiscite defeat and assured today's multi-candidate election.
The opposition also expects to win a comfortable majority in the new bicameral congress. It owes its success to the unity it has managed to maintain in recent years; even Aylwin's erstwhile leftist adversaries agreed to back him.
``This is the first time in 56 years that Socialists have supported a Christian Democrat for president, and we haven't made a mistake,'' said Socialist Party leader Jorge Arrate. ``He's a great candidate.''
``Chile is tired of being a country divided into friends and enemies,'' said Aylwin in his brief rally address. ``But peace is achieved only on the basis of truth and justice, and we want to clarify the truth about the past.''
Confidence that real change is on its way is overwhelming. Chileans now qualify their remarks about virtually any public or social policy with references to what will happen ``after next March,'' the date of the formal transfer of power.
``At one point I thought Pinochet had done us permanent damage,'' says Jos'e Donoso, the country's leading novelist. ``I thought he had talked us out of our faith in politics, had convinced us that what we needed was force. Suddenly, in the last three years, we're all political again. We've won that back.''
Mr. Donoso also noted that the programs of the three presidential candidates are remarkably similar. ``That shows there is a great consensus about where the country should go - democracy, a market economy, human rights.''
Nonetheless, planning teams for the transition government don't underestimate the difficulties Pinochet is leaving behind. The ruling junta has issued last-minute laws which limit the incoming government's powers in economic policy, military affairs, and mass communications.
Especially worrisome is the constitutional guarantee that Pinochet and other military commanders can remain in their posts despite the wishes of the civilian president. Aylwin has criticized the provision and has said Pinochet should retire.
There are signs that the forces of change are too strong to resist. Pinochet recently ceded two seats on his newly created central bank board to opposition representatives. And strike threats sidetracked a radical restructuring of the state copper company.
The pre-electoral ambience was notably calmer than last year's tense buildup to the plebiscite. Unauthorized demonstrations in the downtown area have sometimes been blocked by police, but the once-ubiquitous tear gas and water cannons are less common. But clashes between B"uchi and Aylwin supporters did proliferate after B"uchi's Dec. 11 rally, which closed the legal campaign period.
Politically inspired violence has been reduced but not eliminated. A bomb killed a 16-year-old boy in early December near the site of the 1986 assassination attempt against Pinochet. Official sources claimed the youth was planting the device, but human rights organizations suggest security services are responsible.
Dismantling the repressive apparatus accustomed to acting with impunity will be one of the new regime's toughest problems. Human rights organizations and relatives of victims insist on a full airing of the facts, while Pinochet has made clear he will resist any punishment for ``my men.''