- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2000

At face value, Chile would appear to be caught in a spiral of history. It seems as if all the main players of the past decided to revisit Chile this election cycle.

Just as the return home of an aging dictator seems imminent, the country elects a socialist as president. Since that same dictator overthrew the government of a socialist president almost three decades before, the convergence seems an almost ominous coincidence. In fact, President-elect Ricardo Lagos was once slated to serve the socialist President Allende. Mr. Lagos' chief political rival in the presidential election, Joaquin Lavin, meanwhile, was an economic adviser to Gen. Augusto Pinochet during his dictatorship.

Despite these odd coincidences, however, it becomes clear that the recent election really highlights how much Chile has changed over the past decade. For one thing, voters lined up in National Stadium to cast their ballots, which had been a center of torture and death. And Mr. Lagos seems, for the most part, a socialist only in name. Although he has promised Chileans social spending, mostly in health, he has also vowed to keep the fiscal deficit in check and promote growth and investment. If Mr. Lagos sticks to his pledge to maintain fiscal austerity, he won't precipitate an economic crisis of the sort Mr. Allende brought on through his ill-conceived policies.

Mr. Lagos ran neck-and-neck for most of the race with right-wing opposition candidate Mr. Lavin, with the first presidential vote ending in a virtual tie. Their centrist platforms were remarkably alike, with both candidates pledging to narrow the gap between rich and poor, create new jobs and improve public health care.

Despite Mr. Lavin's defeat, this election was, in some ways, a triumph for political conservatives. Although Mr. Lagos has been relatively moderate for years, Mr. Lavin's popularity put pressure on him to embrace the political center, upsetting some of his socialist colleagues. The election was in essence a victory for centrist policies. Chile appears to be reaching a political consensus.

With such similar platforms, the past of the candidates was likely more influential than their vision for Chile's future. But both candidates worked hard to distance themselves from that past. Mr. Lagos didn't want to be associated with the economic crises of Mr. Allende's presidency. Mr. Lavin, in turn, didn't want Mr. Pinochet's dictatorial rule to define his political identity.

For Mr. Lavin, however, the past encroached on his political future after the British government said a few days before the election it would likely send Mr. Pinochet home for medical reasons. The general has been held under house arrest in Britain since October 1998, when a Spanish judge requested his extradition on charges he committed crimes against humanity during his rule of Chile from 1973-1989.

Before the British government's announcement, Mr. Lavin met with family members of those who disappeared during Mr. Pinochet's rule and said that he would cut military spending. Some political observers believe that the imminence of Mr. Pinochet's return to Chile damaged Mr. Lavin's carefully constructed distance from the Pinochet dictatorship. Other observers believe that Mr. Pinochet's release handed the current coalition government, of which the Socialist party is part, a victory in fighting for Chile's sovereignty, and thereby helped Mr. Lagos.

What does remain clear, however, is that Chileans now wish to prolong the economic prosperity brought on through Mr. Pinochet's economic policies without any of the political drama of the past.

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