Chile seeks a new leader to heal Pinochet-era scars

Sunday's coalition primary focuses on Ricardo Lagos, socialist with a

Who can best heal Chile? That is the nub of the race that has already begun for the presidential election in 2000.

Front-runner at the moment is longtime Socialist leader Ricardo Lagos, who is expected to win nomination in Sunday's primary of the Concertacon - the governing center-left coalition that includes the Socialist Party, Party for Democracy, and the Christian Democrat Party.

Mr. Lagos launched his bid just months before the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London last October reopened the old wounds of his 17-year military dictatorship.

The frenzy over Mr. Pinochet's judicial fate has put front and center the issue of who is most capable of completing the reconciliation process in Chile, resolving the questions of the nation's troubled past, and moving the nation forward.

In Chile's polarized landscape between the supporters of the ex-dictator and his detractors, the Lagos candidacy is a highly charged issue.

Supporters of Pinochet largely claim that the arrest of the ex-dictator was due to a so-called "socialist conspiracy." The almost McCarthyism-style fears of socialism among some in Chile were a factor that helped lead to a military coup against President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, and the ensuing long list of brutal human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime. Such fears now have a new focus in Lagos.

Lagos last year resigned his position as minister of public works in the current Eduardo Frei government in order to pursue the presidency full time. A career academic turned politician, he holds a PhD in economics from North Carolina's Duke University.

In the Concertacon primary, Lagos is up against Andrs Zaldvar, the president of the Senate and a founder of the well-organized Christian Democrat Party. Mr. Zaldvar, who trails far behind Lagos in the polls, says that a centrist politician like himself is better suited to lead Chile in this "critical moment."

Lagos responds that all that is necessary in order to lead the country through reconciliation and modernization in the next period is to keep the coalition of center-left political parties that are embodied in the Concertacon together.

"We as a Concertacon, together with the Christian Democrats, were essential to the defeat of Pinochet 11 years ago," says Lagos on the campaign trail in Valparaiso Wednesday. "We defeated Pinochet in order that human rights and the rule of law are accepted in Chile. The Concertacon is all that is necessary to provide the governability of Chile."

And Lagos doesn't believe the polarization of Chilean society will continue for much longer.

"The real issues in Chile are the same as everywhere else - health, education, social security, the environment," he says. "Reconciliation is a question of time and of understanding what really happened in Chile. We need to at least know what happened to the thousands that disappeared during the military dictatorship."

Asked how his government would handle the human rights lawsuits against Pinochet, Lagos says it is up to the courts to decide - Chilean courts.

"Chileans should be in a position to do their own job," he says. "I realize this is much easier to say than it is to do. It will require goodwill from all sides of Chilean society in order to judge Pinochet."

If Lagos, as expected, wins the primary, he will be mainly up against Joaquin Lavin, a rightist candidate and fervent admirer of Pinochet. And Lagos and Mr. Lavin have actually been negotiating on the human rights issue.

While an ultimate agreement is still questionable, they are reportedly discussing a proposal to jointly call for a national plebiscite on constitutional reforms that would include, for instance, the elimination of lifetime senator - the position Pinochet holds.

An agreement is considered advantageous for both: for Lavin because he would be addressing a problem that concerns most Chileans; for Lagos because he shows governing ability by working with the political right to find a solution.

Minor presidential campaigns are also being waged. Arturo Frei Bolvar is running as an independent on the fears that a Lagos presidency will bring a return to socialism-style policies in Chile. He has the support of many ex-generals from the Pinochet era, and reportedly of Pinochet himself, but his performance in the polls is still in the lower single digits.

SARA Larrain is the candidate for a growing environmental movement in Chile that says ecological concerns are still very much marginalized in the political arena. Among the issues for Gladys Marin, of the Communist Party, are the few social benefits of Chile's neo-liberal, export-oriented economic system.

Lagos says the world has changed, and that Chile has no reason to fear his social democratic ways. "A free market can be good for the economy," he says. "But the society has to be shaped by the citizens and not market forces."

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