Democracy Is on Track in Chile

THE government of Chilean President Patricio Aylwin Azocar will remain in power until December 1993, the end of his term, and will most likely stay its current center-left course, in great part as a result of strong leadership.

It will all happen despite frequent friction with Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the former dictator who is still the head of the powerful Army.

Such are the conclusions of an analysis of Chile's political situation published by Political Risk Services (PRS), a United States-based political and economic forecasting firm. The report notes that Mr. Aylwin's rule has been strengthened by "a good performance of the economy."

The semiannual PRS report, released at about the time municipal elections were being held, seems to confirm what many independent observers are saying - that Chile's hold on democracy is steady for the foreseeable future.

The results of the municipal elections also have confirmed that Aylwin enjoys widespread popular support. His Agreement for Democracy coalition, formed by several parties that set aside their differences to consolidate the government's electoral fortunes, won with 53 percent of the vote. An astonishing 99.5 percent of the 7.8 million registered voters cast ballots on June 28, in a country where voting is mandatory but absenteeism can be high.

The ruling alliance, of which Aylwin's Christian Democratic Party is the leading force, includes left-leaning parties like the Socialists and the Radicals.

More than half of the city council seats throughout the country now belong to the Christian Democrats, who have traditionally maintained a good grip on municipal governments since the 1960s, well before General Pinochet's 1973-89 de facto rule.

Aylwin has had rifts with Pinochet, who has adamantly refused to step down as the Army's chief under the 1980 constitution. The constitution, which gives the veteran military caudillo broad powers, was approved by Chileans in a referendum held while he was still in office.

Efforts to contain Pinochet's constant stepping out of line - especially in matters of arms sales and travels overseas - are a continuous challenge for Foreign Minister Enriqua Silva Cimma. But Aylwin's patience with the former dictator seems to be paying off. Pinochet apparently has agreed - reluctantly - to refrain from further invasions of the civilian government's jurisdiction in international affairs.

Pinochet's stubbornly independent stance is based in part on his prestige among the right-leaning members of the Army's top brass, which had a pivotal role in the general's 16-year iron rule after the bloody coup that toppled the Socialist government of Salvador Allende Gossens.

Aylwin, however, moved swiftly to assert his authority, right from the beginning of his term. He has based his insistence on Pinochet's subordination on the president's constitutional role as commander in chief of the armed forces.

Meanwhile, the specter of Pinochet's possible return to power has encouraged Aylwin's fractious coalition to stay together for the sake of democracy.

THE Aylwin administration's equally adept handling of the economy has played an important role in consolidating the president's support. Continuing and enhancing the military regime's free-market policies - with liberalization, privatization, and a strong export promotion as their main features - the government persuaded the international banking community that Chile's economy was sound.

As a consequence of Aylwin's successful financial program of swaps and buybacks, the country got an unprecedented 19 percent reduction of its foreign debt, with its total debt dropping from $20.1 billion in 1986 to $16.4 billion in 1991.

Record foreign investment, coupled to a tight control of inflation, has made Chile a very attractive emerging market. Its stock exchange was among the top 10 performers in 1991, with a rise of 90 percent in terms of price appreciation, according to the International Finance Corporation.

PRS estimates that, if the current policies continue, Chile's gross domestic product will grow 5 percent between 1992 and 1997, at an annual inflation rate of between 15 and 18 percent.

The report claims that "even if the center-left coalition splits, a Christian Democrat is likely to be president and follow policies similar to those of the current regime." Only a major economic setback could lead to a center-right government, or even favor the Socialists, who might strike out on their own. But nobody expects Aylwin's successful economic and political team to let go of the tiller.

Many Chilean analysts forecast a rough fight for the coalition's presidential candidacy between Aylwin's Minister of Education, Ricardo Lagos, a Socialist leader, and Eduardo Frei (son of a former president), the Christian Democratic Party's head, who seems to enjoy the preferences of voters.

The winner of that battle to be Aylwin's successor remains to be seen. But no one is betting against Chile's democratic stability. At least not for now.

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