SANTIAGO, Chile--Gen. Augusto Pinochet's government conceded defeat yesterday in a vote he hoped would ensure his presidency until 1997, clearing the way for the first open elections since he seized power in a bloody 1973 coup.
Interior Minister Sergio Fernandez pledged to respect the results of Wednesday's referendum, but also to enforce a 1980 constitution the political opposition wants changed.
Under terms of the constitution, Pinochet remains in power until 1990.
When definitive results became known early yesterday morning, a noisy caravan of automobiles formed at a downtown traffic circle, with drivers beeping their horns and shouting, "He's going to fall."
Jubiliant opposition leaders promised to pursue national unity as they seek a speedy return to democratic government.
"The country delivered its mandate...[and is] on the way to a transition to an authentic democracy," Patricio Aylwin, president of the centrist Christian Democratic Party and leader of a 16-party opposition coalition, told cheering supporters.
A convincing majority of Chileans, voting simply "yes" or "no," rejected a proposal by Pinochet and other military chiefs that he remain in office until 1997.
With 15,960 of the 22,248 voting tables reporting, the Interior Ministry announced that "no" ballots totaled 2,754,805, or 53.3 percent, while "yes" ballots totaled 2,290,972, or 44.3 percent. There were 121,400 ballots that were blank or voided for being wrongly marked.
The margin of victory was even greater according to a count by the opposition coalition, which waged an effective grassroots campaign.
Its returns, also partial, showed 2,771,995 "no" votes for 57.6 percent, and 2,022,031 "yes" votes, or 42.2 percent. It gave no specific count of blank or voided ballots.
Fernandez formally conceded defeat early today after an emergency meeting with Pinochet, the four-man military junta that serves as a legislature and the 15-member Cabinet.
"We abide by the results already known to the people," Fernandez said, reading from a text.
His expression grave, he added that the government "reiterates its unbreakable resolve to comply with, and have others comply with, the constitution and laws."
The opposition has said it will pursue negotiations with the armed forces on changing the constitution, pushed through by Pinochet in 1980.
The document lays out a schedule for a return to democracy, including a special provision for Wednesday's referendum. In case of a "no" majority, it called for competitive presidential elections to be held in December 1989, with the winner assuming power in March 1990.
Pinochet, who commands the powerful army, remains leader until then.
The constitution also calls for elections in 1990 for a congress, disbanded when Pinochet seized power in a September 1973 coup that ousted President Salvador Allende, a Marxist who won the last presidential election in 1970.
Opposition leaders want the presidential ballot moved up. They also want to eliminate provisions in the constitution that make congress virtually powerless to amend it, that call for at least nine of the 35 senators to be government appointed and that give the armed forces both autonomy and supervisory role in national policy-making.
Aylwin said in a victory speech: "We reiterate our proposal to reach agreement with the armed forces on the terms of an institutional political change that would result in free elections quickly, and in a congress totally and freely elected."