Chile’s September 11 happened in 1973, when on that date, a bloody military coup smashed one of Latin America’s strongest democracies with roots stretching back 140 years. The military assaulted the presidential palace, leading to the death of validly elected President Salvador Allende, while it rounded up thousands across the country.
More than 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” under the military junta. According to official reports, more than 30,000 victims were tortured, affecting untold numbers of their family members and society at large. The junta’s assassinations reached beyond Chile’s borders, including Washington, DC, where Chile’s former ambassador to the U.S. and former minister, respectively, of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Defense Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronnie Karpen Moffitt were blown up by a car bomb in 1976 while driving on Embassy Row. Moffitt’s husband Michael, also a colleague of Letelier, was wounded by the bomb but survived.
The military takeover, encouraged by the U.S. posture toward the Allende government, was originally to be short lived, with a rotating leader from among the commanders of the army, navy, air force and carabineros (national police), who made up the four-member junta. However, Army Commander General Augusto Pinochet quickly consolidated control and, with the junta acting as the “legislature”, ruled Chile for 17 years. A constitution was developed under the junta’s dictates and was passed in a spurious 1980 referendum, giving Pinochet the presidency for eight years (while continuing as army chief) and calling for a presidential plebiscite thereafter - with one candidate chosen by the junta to stand for a yes or no vote on a subsequent eight-year term. While some junta members reportedly favored choosing a civilian for that role, Pinochet pushed through himself as the junta’s unanimous candidate.
More than 97% of Chile’s registered voters, over 88% of the voting age population, came out for the October 1988 presidential plebiscite, and nearly 56% voted no to Pinochet. Behind the scenes, he attempted to negate the result and perpetuate his reign by evoking emergency rule, but he was stopped by other junta members based on the resounding voice of the people, the credible role of electoral authorities, and independent verifications of results by the opposition and civil society. International election observers and the broader international community, including the U.S., also played important roles in defending the people’s choice for Chile to return to democracy.
NDI was in the midst of the plebiscite’s drama, and on September 23, 2023, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric presented NDI and three other American organizations with medals honoring their roles in supporting Chile’s return to democracy. NDI helped Chilean political parties that supported the return to democracy to develop united efforts beginning in 1985. The institute also assisted extensive voter registration initiatives, engaged with national nonpartisan election monitors, and, separate from other assistance, organized an international election observation mission. Each of those activities contributed to NDI’s foundational experiences.
Helping to Facilitate Unity for Democracy: In May 1985, Chile’s then fragmented democratic opposition and other democratic leaders from the region joined in a multi-day conference on Democracy in Latin America organized by NDI in Washington, DC. Discussions focused on lessons learned for strengthening the “democratic center” of those seeking transitions through peaceful means. This and later meetings drew significantly upon lessons of Spain’s transition to democracy, which NDI’s President Brian Atwood had studied while serving there as a diplomat and later as a U.S. Senate aide. Contacts from that period were drawn into NDI engagements with Chileans, including, among others, Aldolfo Suárez, who as the first post-Franco Prime Minister, played a critical role in Spain’s democratic transition.
According to a number of Chilean conference participants, the exchanges played an important role in developing their approach to the 1985 National Accord on the Restoration of Full Democracy. The Accord was the result of delicate inter-party negotiations backed by the archbishop of Santiago and was joined by 11 political parties from center-right to center-left. It called for free political activity, full civil liberties, and direct presidential elections rather than the plebiscite set forth in the 1980 authoritarian constitution. Importantly, the National Accord demonstrated that democratic unity was possible.
In May 1986, upon discussions with Chilean party leaders, as lack of recognition by the junta and far-left anti-government violence undermined agreement around the Accord, NDI and Venezuela’s two leading political parties organized an international conference in Caracas on Chile’s potential for a democratic transition. Delegates from the Philippines, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela consulted with Chilean participants on strategic approaches and shared experiences with transition processes. The exchanges also allowed Chilean leaders from all 11 of the National Accord parties to reaffirm their common commitments. That proved to be important as agreement emerged later that the plebiscite was the best way to challenge the junta, even though it was inherently undemocratic and the contest would be grossly unequal. The Chilean socialist participants, for example, cited the experiences of the Spanish socialists as influencing their decision to join in the plebiscite’s vote NO Campaign.
Pro Bono Experts and Shared Values: Pro bono experts sent by NDI advised the NO Campaign and CFE, with many of them often returning to the country, including Peter Hart, Frank Greer, Annie Burns, Fred Hartwig, Curt Cutter, Glenn Cowan, and Jack Walsh as did NDI’s Ken Wollack and Patricia Keefer. They consulted with the NO Campaign leaders on opinion polling, messaging, media communications, computerization, and grassroots organization for voter mobilization and poll watching. Pollster Peter Hart and media consultant Frank Greer joined NDI in helping Chilean pollsters present findings to U.S. Congressional members and staff so that they could better understand the potential for the success of pro-democracy forces in the plebiscite.
Likewise, NDI staff and pro bono experts assisted the CFE as it focused on voter registration and mobilization, as well as helping it organize its statistically-based independent election results verification (Quick Count or “PVT”). To help level the dramatically uneven playing field with the pro-yes campaign - while not taking an official position on the plebiscite - NDI provided modest subgrants to the NO Campaign and to CFE and administered the bulk of a special $1-million U.S. Congressional appropriation dedicated to helping Chileans advance democratic aspirations through the plebiscite’s processes. Such actions by Congress, the Administration, the National Endowment for Democracy, and groups including NDI and others supported a new relationship with Chile based on shared interests and democratic values.
Mobilizing Voter Registration: To better understand how the Institute might assist those seeking to restore democracy, NDI President Brian Atwood and consultant Curtis Cutter visited Chile in April 1987 and met with opposition and civic leaders as well as the Minister of Interior. Multiple stakeholders stressed the importance of mobilizing voter registration for the referendum and eventual free elections, though there was sharp division about participating in the plebiscite. In July, NDI sent a team to assess the election law, voter registration procedures, and ways to help the voter registration drive of the newly formed Committee for Free Elections (CFE), an amalgam of political parties, trade unions, and civic organizations. The team included U.S. political consultant Frank Greer, Director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project William Velasquez, and NDI Executive Vice President and future President Ken Wollack.
NDI later sent technical specialists from six countries, who among other activities, participated in a three-day working seminar on “The Transition to Democracy and the Electoral Process” co-sponsored by two Chilean public policy institutes and a publishing entity. The sessions engaged 350 national, provincial and territorial leaders of the registration campaign and included problem-solving sessions to address helping the populace overcome fear, appreciate the importance of voting in light of 15 years without elections, and understand how to deal with the cumbersome process. Over the ensuing months NDI pro bono experts in grassroots organizing, polling, messaging, and communications, including members of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, returned to consult with the registration initiative’s leaders, who drew on the input as they crafted their massive grassroots campaign.
While the junta moved to register its supporters, the determined efforts of CFE, the Catholic Church’s Civic Crusade and others brought the voter registry up to more than 92% of the eligible population, an outstanding achievement given the limited time and national conditions. By some estimates, going into the registration period, nearly half of the electorate never had a chance to vote, and there had been no opportunities to conduct such campaigns under the junta’s rule. The success of the campaign demonstrated that fear could be overcome and encouraged those who wanted a democratic transition even as the junta was confident it would win.
Campaign for the NO Vote: In early 1988, as Chile’s democratic opposition made difficult decisions to move away from their demand for early free elections and focus on using the plebiscite to truncate Pinochet’s rule, 16 political parties forged a unified approach through the Comando para el No (Command or Campaign for the No). The NO Campaign bridged the political left and right further than earlier democratic alliances and the far left came to follow it without joining or at least refrained from provoking the junta in the lead-up to the plebiscite.
Fear of consequences for voting against Pinochet was diminished in part by the door-to-door and other voter registration work of the nonpartisan CFE and Civic Crusade. That was built upon by the NO Campaign, realizing that it needed to reach the precinct level to mobilize the vote and build capacities to monitor the polls on election day. It also appreciated the need to cooperate with civic organizations in their efforts to do the same.
During the 27 days from September 7 to October 2, both sides were provided 15 minutes per day for free messages on state television. The NO Campaign’s TV spots were scheduled late at night to minimize viewership, though their clever, upbeat messages presented professionally, often incorporating admired Chilean and international personalities and youthful music, became greatly popular. They were often referred to as “the voice of the people”. The image of a rainbow, representing the unity of each of the political groupings in the NO Campaign - and that a rainbow makes you happy after a storm - built momentum for the No vote. The slogan and song Chile, Joy is Coming, resonated then and today in Chile and internationally.
The NO Campaign took advantage of the eventual lifting of the state of emergency to hold rallies projecting the same positive messages. As the voting day approached, it mobilized the March of Happiness, with prongs starting in southern and the northern parts of the elongated country converging in Santiago with a rally of hundreds of thousands four days before the vote.
The YES Campaign was led by the government and military. It had tremendous advantages of incumbency, including through the mass media outside the allotted free TV spots and the power of municipal authorities to mobilize support and hinder the opposition. Analysts noted that the Yes Campaign concentrated largely on two themes. One was fear of returning to the instability that surrounded Allende's Popular Unity government and the possibility of violence from the extreme left. The other was the loss of economic gains made under military rule. Its theme, “Chile a Winning Country,” emphasized economic gains, while scenes of street violence accompanied a theme that “Chile’s life was at stake” mongered fear. Pinochet, the candidate, was generally portrayed as a grandfatherly figure rather than his earlier images.
The NO Campaign decided to place poll watcher teams in all of the country’s 22,247 mesas, aiming for over 100,000 volunteers. The teams scrutinized each step of the voting and counting processes and, importantly, forwarded copies of the official results forms from each mesa so the Campaign could conduct a parallel results tabulation.
Observing the Philippines Elections Helped Chileans: Four Chilean leaders joined NDI’s international election observation delegation to the May 1987 Philippines legislative elections - each of whom played important roles in the 1988 Chilean plebiscite. Andres Allamand led the National Renewal Party formed in 1987 from three rightist organizations which fostered acceptance of the No vote’s victory even though the party supported the Yes vote. Christian Democratic Party leader Carlos Figueroa joined the NO Campaign’s efforts, as did Heraldo Muñoz, who led the Party for Democracy. Jose Miguel Barrios, a former ambassador to the U.S. and elsewhere under Pinochet, became a leader of the nonpartisan CFE’s efforts. In addition to observing the 1987 Philippines election, they and other delegates learned about electoral reform and how NAMFREL organized its “Quick Count,” which influenced the NO Campaign and CFE in developing rapid independent verifications of the 1988 plebiscite’s voting results. Those verifications were instrumental in the junta accepting that the No vote won.
The NO Campaign prioritized its independent tabulation, knowing such an effort demonstrated that Ferdinand Marcos lost the 1986 Philippine presidential election. Having witnessed the independent tabulation by the nonpartisan National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), NDI brought four Chilean civic and political leaders to the Philippines as part of an observer delegation to witness the 1987 legislative elections and to learn about election monitoring. The Institute also included NAMFREL leaders among the pro bono experts who visited Chile to consult with the NO Campaign and CFE.
CFE’s nonpartisan election monitoring, while also drawing on the NAMFREL experience, concentrated on deploying teams to a nationally representative statistical sample of approximately 10% of the country’s mesas. NDI pro bono consultant Glenn Cowan and NDI’s Larry Garber advised CFE on that model. Rapidly relayed vote counts from that sample enabled CFE to quickly project, within a small margin of error, what an accurate official results tabulation should show. Such “Quick Counts” (often called Parallel Vote Tabulations, PVTs, or Process and Results Verifications for Transparency, PRVTs) have since been successfully conducted by citizen groups more than 200 times in over 50 countries around the world, constantly innovating with NDI’s assistance and building on Chile’s experience. The “Independents for the YES” planned a parallel count using data from official sources. CLE approached them to exchange information on their respective verification efforts but were rebuffed.
Recognizing that there could be attempts to disrupt its Quick Count, CFE took careful measures to protect its computers and set up a decentralized system where reports went to volunteers who each collected data from not more than 40 mesas and relayed reports to a secluded data center for analysis. Both the NO Campaign and CFE had backup generators for their independent results tabulation, which proved vital when electric blackouts occurred as October 5 approached, including on election night. A bomb went off at CFE’s official headquarters a few days before voting, confirming the need for security precautions.
Election Night Crisis and NDI’s International Observer Delegation: Voting and counting went relatively smoothly across Chile on October 5, even though voter turnout was monumental. Independent results verifications by the NO Campaign and CFE went well. The official results tabulation, however, mysteriously stalled at about 10 p.m. on election night, showing the Yes vote ahead, even though an exit poll and quick count reports showed the No vote leading. Tensions spiked in light of fears that the junta would create a pretext to cancel the vote if it saw it would lose. In the immediate pre-voting period, reliable rumors of such a provocation caused the U.S. and others to express serious concerns to Chilean officials.
In fact, behind the scenes on election night, Pinochet ordered security forces to withdraw from the center of Santiago, and he planned to provoke violence, starting a reaction to justify using the events to cling to power. The Santiago garrison commander, however, refused to order the withdrawal. Nonetheless, Pinochet called the junta members to the Presidential Palace in a plan for them to authorize emergency powers to thwart the people’s vote.
NDI, among others, had a role in how events played out that night. NDI organized a 55-member international election observer mission for the plebiscite led by former Prime Minister of Spain Adolfo Suárez, former President of Colombia Misael Pastrana, former Governor of Arizona and future U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Peter Daily. The delegates came from 22 countries in North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe, representing differing political tendencies, and included elections and human rights experts, all of whom pledged to impartially and accurately observe the plebiscite. Brian Atwood, Ken Wollack, Larry Garber, and Patricia Keefer were among the delegation’s members, as was current NDI Board Member Hattie Babbitt. NDI later published the delegation’s report on the plebiscite.
Having received reports of a credible process from NDI observers deployed across the country, the delegation leaders visited key stakeholders in Santiago, including the NO Campaign headquarters, learning about its Quick Count reports and the CFE, learning about its statistical projection (PVT), both of which credibly showed a No vote victory. Aldofo Suárez and others pointed to the Quick Count and PVT findings in subsequent meetings, including with the rightist National Renewal Party’s leadership. Party leader Andres Allamand noted that he appreciated the role of the Quick Count and PVT from his experience as a member of NDI’s international election observation delegation to the Philippines’ 1987 legislative elections. When he subsequently spoke with military figures by phone, he pressed them to recognize the No vote’s victory, emphasizing that the party supported the Yes vote but would not support a fraud.
Later, when entering the presidential palace for the junta’s meeting, Air Force Commander General Fernando Matthei told Chilean radio that “it appeared the ‘no’ had won.” A leader of the Yes Campaign had also said on television that his impression was that a majority had favored the No vote. The junta members at that meeting turned back Pinochet’s plan to once again seize power. At 2 a.m., it was officially announced that with almost 72% of the vote counted, the No vote had over 53%, and half an hour later, the Minister of Interior Sergio Fernandez, who directed the YES Campaign, acknowledged the No vote’s victory.
Chile’s Democratic Example: In 1989, NDI honored Chile’s movement for free elections as the international recipient of its Democracy Award. The director of the National Accord and later the CFE, Sergio Molina and the national coordinator of the Campaign for the No Genaro Arriagada attended the ceremony on behalf of the movement. The event was co-hosted by more than 50 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and in addition to the Chilean honorees, NDI Chairman Walter Mondale recognized the significant role of U.S. Ambassador to Chile Harry G. Barnes in supporting Chile’s path to democracy. Sergio Molina noted that the movement “showed the world the dignity of a free people,” and Genaro Arriagada emphasized the NO Campaign “united to give democracy a chance.” He also directly addressed NDI and the 400 people in attendance, adding:
“Chileans were not the only ones who were united. The effort was also the work of a distinguished group of North Americans associated with NDI. You all know that in my country’s recent past, the tale of North American intervention was not an honorable one. This time, however, Chileans and their North American friends from NDI…shared a common objective – democracy. And, we worked for that goal with means that were morally unquestionable – using tools that were clear and transparent…. This collaboration in the service of democracy between Chile’s democratic forces and NDI has been, without a doubt, an integral part of the miracle of unity that we celebrate today.”
Under the 1980 Constitution, Pinochet remained in office until March 1990, following 1989’s general elections that were won by the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (the Concertación), which grew out of the NO Campaign. NDI also observed those elections. The junta disbanded after the 1989 elections as the constitution provided. Pinochet remained Army Commander until March 1998, when he became senator-for-life under the constitution, and the military continued to exert a custodial role over a “protected democracy” through the broadly-powered national security council, a de facto veto over legislative actions and virtual autonomy from civilian controls.
Pinochet was held in the U.K. for 17 months beginning in October 1998 under an international arrest warrant for human rights violations, but he was released for health reasons. When he died in Chile in 2006, he was facing approximately 300 criminal charges for those violations and embezzlement. Those developments marked a turning point in holding dictators to account, and Chile set an example by developing a truth and reconciliation commission and investigative reports on the junta’s crimes as it progressed through democratic governments since 1990.
The incredibly brave and untiring work of Chilean activists from many arenas to bring the country back to its democratic path continues to inspire people around the world. NDI’s experiences in providing assistance to them helped to set the Institute's foundations. In the words of one NDI pro bono volunteer: “They had the talent: we had experience. It was a ‘perfect marriage’”. Chilean activists also joined democratic solidarity efforts, including NDI programs, across borders and regions from Bulgaria to Burma, Cuba and Nicaragua to South Africa, and more. The 1980 Constitution, with important amendments, remains, though a 2020 plebiscite approved the development of a new one. The resulting draft was rejected in 2022, and the process calls for a vote on another draft in December 2023. Chile has made significant democratic progress since the 1988 plebiscite with respect for political rights and civil liberties and has held credible elections with alteration of power among parties. Chilean democratic activists provide an example for us all.
Author: Pat Merloe, Strategic Advisor to NDI
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.