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Chilean Election Seen As Crucial

December 11, 1997

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) _ Chileans vote Thursday in congressional elections considered crucial to the government’s efforts to reduce the military’s influence on politics, a legacy of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

At the same time, government and opposition groups will be keenly watching the performances of some potential candidates in the 1999 presidential election.

Faced with widespread voter apathy, President Eduardo Frei on Wednesday urged Chileans to cast their votes ``supporting the government to let us continue to do our work.″

A rarely enforced law makes voting mandatory and imposes fines of up to $140 for those who fail to cast ballots.

Chile’s 8.1 million eligible voters will be picking politicians to fill all 120 seats in the lower house of Congress, and 20 of the Senate’s 47 seats.

Little change is expected in the makeup of the lower house, where the center-left government coalition now has a 70-50 majority over the right-wing opposition.

But opinion polls indicate the government could gain seats in the Senate, where the opposition has a 25-21 majority. One of the seats is empty because a senator recently died.

Nine senate seats are not elected but appointed, according to the constitution left over from the 1973-90 Pinochet regime. Four of those seats are reserved for former military and police commanders.

Among presidential hopefuls running in Thursday’s vote are Enrique Krauss, president of the ruling centrist Christian Democrat Party, and Andres Zaldivar, a senator from the same party. The opposition will be following Andres Aleman of the right-wing National Renewal Party, who is trying to move from the lower house to the Senate.

The deputies in the House are elected to four-year terms, while senators serve eight-year terms.

The government mobilized more than 50,000 police and soldiers to ensure public order during the vote.

Pinochet, 82, is to become a senator for life in March upon his retirement as the army’s commander in chief, another guarantee in his constitution. He rose to power in a bloody military coup and ruled for 16 1/2 years, during which the government says 3,197 people were assassinated.

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