Chileans Vote for Christian Democrats

Frei, with win over right-wing, is first president to succeed another from same party in 50 years

CHILEAN voters overwhelmingly chose Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Jr. to follow in the footsteps of his popular father as president.

Mr. Frei took approximately 58 percent of the vote in a decisive triumph over five rivals. The result confirmed the preponderant role of the centrist Christian Democratic Party in Chilean politics. Frei's closest rival, right-wing candidate Arturo Alessandri, won 24 percent of the vote.

Two minor bomb incidents marred the voting, a far cry from the political violence that marked Chile during the 1970s and 1980s.

Frei, who will take office next March 11 for a six-year term, was a newcomer to active politics when he ran and won a Senate seat in 1989. But the former engineer was no stranger to the halls of power.

As a boy, Frei played soccer in the inner courts of the La Moneda palace when his father, Eduardo Frei, a leading political figure of the time, was visiting with presidents. The elder Frei eventually was elected president and governed from 1964 to 1970.

That period of relative calm and prosperity has been viewed nostalgically ever since, as Chile later plunged into two decades of political violence, first under the short-lived socialist experiment of Salvador Allende, then a 17-year dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

In his victory speech, Frei pointed out that a back-to-back election of two presidents from the same party has not occurred in Chile for more than 50 years. He said his win reflected voters's desire for continuity and ``a strong ethical and moral component in the business of governing.''

``Democracy has triumphed, Chile has triumphed,'' Frei said in a speech after President Patricio Aylwin congratulated his successor. ``We will create the room and opportunity for the poor and disadvantaged of this country to grow. We will reach the 21st century as a developed nation with humanity and solidarity.'' Frei's term lasts until the year 2000.

Frei's easy victory indicates overall satisfaction with the performance of the multi-party, center-left coalition which took office almost four years ago. The coalition, under Mr. Aylwin, has steered a conservative course in economic policy and avoided conflicts with the armed forces through continuous consultations and a relatively hands-off attitude toward the issue of human rights violations during General Pinochet's rule.

The percentage won by Frei appeared to be slightly higher than Aylwin's in 1989 and very similar to the coalition's margin of victory over Pinochet in the 1988 yes-or-no plebiscite on his continued rule. Pinochet's defeat in that vote marked the beginning of the transition to civilian rule.

The rightist opposition seemed to fight a half-hearted battle against the ruling coalition, spending more time and money on its own internal rivalries. Two parties, National Renovation (RN) and the Democratic Independent Union (UDI), are struggling for dominance among the right-wing grouping that long supported military rule.

RN seeks to refurbish the image of Chile's conservatives from that of uncritical supporters of Pinochet despite his dismal human rights record, to a more modern party of youthful technocrats and businessmen, concerned about poverty and a fair distribution of Chile's current prosperity.

The UDI represents more intransigent sectors who see the armed forces as the ultimate guarantors of national security in the face of potential radical threats. UDI leaders regularly celebrate the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 1973, coup against Allende as an event nearly as important as the 1810 revolution against Spain.

The two conservative parties appeared to have suffered substantial losses in the House of Deputies, but will retain their veto in the upper chamber with the aid of senators appointed by the outgoing military junta in 1990.

Amid voter apathy, especially among youth, none of the three left-leaning critics of the current government attracted significant support. The once-powerful Communist Party, ideologically unaltered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, sank below 5 percent.

An unorthodox newcomer, ``green'' economist Manfred Max-Neof, did better with a surprising 6 percent of the vote, despite having virtually no campaign funds or organization.

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