Amid nightmares over voter suppression, electoral mayhem and COVID-19, I’m transported back to Chile’s 1988 plebiscite under the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. As election day approached, the mood, like ours, was polarized, fraught with dread uncertainty.
Like Donald Trump, Pinochet craved power, fomented chaos and used corrupt means to buttress his rule. The general knew, as does Trump, that losing could mean facing the full force of the law.
Yet Pinochet presided over Chile’s first free elections in 18 years without interfering. Although claiming a vote against him would ignite anarchy and revolution, he didn’t discredit the electoral process. His military junta opted to respect the results rather than plunge the country into another civil war.
In 1973, Pinochet led a brutal military coup against South America’s longest standing democracy. In the ensuing reign of terror, his regime silenced the press, outlawed political parties, and executed or disappeared thousands of citizens. He destroyed election rolls and rewrote the constitution, which a shackled electorate approved in a 1980 referendum.
While codifying the junta’s power, the new constitution established a path to limited civilian rule. An October 1988 plebiscite would determine whether Pinochet would continue through 1997 (“Si”), or step down after free, competitive elections in 1989 (“No”). Some opposition leaders feared participating in the plebiscite would legitimize his regime. Others saw a door to be pushed open.
By 1987, the regime legalized most political parties except the communists. The center left and Christian Democrats, historic rivals, came to terms. A vibrant coalition of human rights groups, unions and political parties emerged.
To be eligible to vote, eligible Chileans had to buy a new ID card. A nonpartisan voter registration project supported by the Catholic Church and civil society groups carried out a massive campaign; 7.4 million, 92% of the potential electorate, registered to vote.
Still, come election eve, Chileans were on knife’s edge. What would Pinochet do if the “No” prevailed?
After polling places closed, the state-run television called the election for the “Si” vote. But near midnight, air force commander Gen. Fernando Matthei announced the “No” was winning. Other junta members resisted when an enraged Pinochet proposed martial law. By dawn, the country learned the “Si” had lost by 56% to 44%. While remaining army chief, Pinochet was powerless to halt the democratic transition process.
President Trump presides over a self-governing system. Yet he systematically undermines democratic norms, reviling jurors, members of Congress, scientific experts — any that resist his will. He sides with Russia’s Vladimir Putin against the findings of his own intelligence agencies. He calls news journalists “enemies of the people.”
Trump falsely claims mail-in voting leads to extensive fraud, and withholds needed election funding from the U.S. Postal Service and state governments. The president has proposed deploying police to polling places, something that smacks of voter intimidation.
Trump allies are suing state officials to prevent vote-by-mail reforms that would protect citizens from the pandemic. Key Republican governors are leveraging a weakened Voting Rights Act to manipulate election rules, closing polling places and drop-off boxes, making it harder for minorities and those most affected by the pandemic to vote from home.
In the presidential debate, Trump continued trying to discredit the election in advance, stating, “This will be a fraud like you have never seen.” He refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power and admitted “counting on the Supreme Court to look at the ballots.” After being impeached for trying to throw the 2016 election secretly, Trump apparently wants to do so openly.
Trump is no Pinochet when it comes to the ballot. Sadly, that’s no compliment. Pinochet was a disciplined soldier who could listen and follow rules. Trump has zero self-control or respect for the rule of law. His attacks on the voting system reveal a cobweb-thin membrane separating democracy from autocracy.
No one expects Trump will stand up under fire as did Pinochet. It falls on Americans to defend the right to vote like it was our newborn child and to exercise that right in epic proportions.
Charlotte Roe, a human rights and wildlife advocate, is a retired U.S. diplomat who served as political officer in Chile during the last four years of the Pinochet regime.