Allende Wins a Close Election in Chile Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Salvador Allende narrowly won Chile’s three-way presidential election and proceeded to implement a nonviolent Marxist revolutionary transformation within the constitution. His stormy period in office ended in 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte led a coup that toppled and killed him.

Summary of Event

By 1970, the nation of Chile had experienced a political history that made it unusual in relation to other Latin American nations. Chile had developed strong and stable political institutions and generally avoided the military coups, civil wars, and dictatorships that plagued much of the rest of the Western Hemisphere. The four decades preceding the presidential election of 1970 had witnessed a lively, competitive, pluralistic, multi-party democracy with political organizations ranging from the Marxist left to the far right. Elections revealed a tripartite political division into left, right, and centrist forces of roughly equal strength. Presidents nearly always took office after receiving a plurality, rather than a majority, of votes. Presidency, Chilean Presidential elections, Chilean [kw]Allende Wins a Close Election in Chile (Sept. 4, 1970) [kw]Election in Chile, Allende Wins a Close (Sept. 4, 1970) [kw]Chile, Allende Wins a Close Election in (Sept. 4, 1970) Presidency, Chilean Presidential elections, Chilean [g]Latin America;Sept. 4, 1970: Allende Wins a Close Election in Chile[10890] [g]Chile;Sept. 4, 1970: Allende Wins a Close Election in Chile[10890] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 4, 1970: Allende Wins a Close Election in Chile[10890] Allende, Salvador Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto Alessandri, Jorge Tomic, Radomiro

Salvador Allende was the presidential candidate of a leftist coalition called Popular Unity Popular Unity party, Chilean (Unidad Popular, or UP) composed of Allende’s Socialist Party, Socialist Party, Chilean the Chilean Communist Party, Communist Party, Chilean the non-Marxist middle-class Radical Party, Radical Party, Chilean and two small radical Christian parties. Allende was a physician, lifelong Marxist, and veteran politician. He had held numerous elective offices, served as minister of health, and was a presidential candidate on three previous occasions. Fear that the Socialist Party leader might gain the presidency in 1964 had prompted the Right to forego running a candidate and instead to back the candidacy of centrist reformer Eduardo Frei Montalva Frei Montalva, Eduardo , leader of Chile’s Christian Democratic Party Christian Democratic Party, Chilean . Frei promised Chileans the alternative of a “Revolution in Liberty.” However, an unintended effect of his policies, many of which remained uncompleted by the close of his term, was to stimulate leftist agitation for further change. Meanwhile, Frei’s agrarian reforms upset landowners and the political Right, which broke with the Christian Democrats. This break set up another three-way struggle for the presidency between Left, Right, and center in 1970.

Allende’s opponents were former president Jorge Alessandri of the rightist National Party, National Party, Chilean and Radomiro Tomic, representing the Christian Democrats’ leftist faction. Tomic’s program was similar to Allende’s and included nationalization of the U.S.-owned copper industry. The presidential election was held on September 4, 1970. Election results gave Allende 36.3 percent of the vote, Alessandri 34.9 percent, and Tomic 27.8 percent. In the past, when no candidate obtained a majority, the Chilean congress had always chosen the person with the largest vote total, no matter how close the result. Rejecting efforts by the political Right to declare Alessandri president, the Christian Democrats followed precedent and supported Allende, who formally assumed the presidency on November 2.

Allende called for a peaceful revolutionary restructuring of Chilean society and institutions within the nation’s constitutional framework and designated his program “The Chilean Way to Socialism.” The president argued that socialist transformation could be achieved through peaceful means because of Chile’s nonviolent political tradition. Majority support for UP’s program would be realized by winning sufficient middle-class backing.

Allende moved quickly to implement his program, and the first year of UP government was successful. Public spending projects, price freezes, and wage hikes raised the standard of living of the working class, increased consumer spending, and stimulated the economy. The rate of inflation also fell, with the result that real income rose thirty percent. Growing nationalistic sentiment led the congress to pass unanimously Allende’s legislation nationalizing the copper mines. As part of a gradual “transition to socialism,” state control over industry was extended. In the rural sector, the government dramatically accelerated the expropriation and redistribution of land begun under Frei.

A public demonstration in support of Allende’s unsuccessful 1964 bid for the Chilean presidency. After running for president in 1952, 1958, and 1964, Allende was finally elected in 1970.

(Library of Congress)

The first test of the new regime’s popularity came with the April, 1971, municipal elections, in which UP candidates received slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. During the next two years, however, Allende’s presidency was embroiled in controversy and faced daunting odds. The regime controlled only the executive branch of government. A majority of congressional seats, the judicial system, and the comptroller general’s office, which ruled on the constitutionality of legislation, were held by opponents of UP.

To complicate matters, UP was a loose coalition that did not speak with one voice. Moderates like Allende favored a gradual approach that might involve compromises or slowing the pace of change to gain cooperation from the Christian Democrats. Others in the coalition, including most of Allende’s own party, felt it was necessary to press ahead rapidly and create momentum by mobilizing their working-class base. This disunity weakened UP and made it difficult to secure Christian Democrat cooperation. A united congressional opposition made it impossible to realize major UP goals, such as the political and economic restructuring of Chile, and forced Allende to find legal but controversial ways to bypass the congress in enacting some of his program.

After initial economic gains, falling copper prices and scarce foreign exchange took their toll. The newly nationalized industrial enterprises and expropriated farm lands did not produce enough to satisfy consumer demand. Scarcity of goods and hyperinflation fueled middle-class opposition to the president’s policies. Public protests became frequent, and strikes by small businessmen threatened increasingly to paralyze the country.

Allende also faced strong U.S. opposition, as the Nixon administration did not want the “Chilean Way” experiment to succeed and influence similar actions by other Latin American governments. U.S. efforts to destabilize the regime included supporting those seeking to prevent Allende’s confirmation as president in 1970, blocking loans from international lending organizations, drastically cutting aid programs (with the exception of assistance to the Chilean armed forces), and covert financial funding of the vitriolic anti-Allende press and of groups striking against the government. Evidence of direct U.S. involvement in the eventual military coup, however, is lacking.

Congressional elections in March, 1973, saw UP win nearly 44 percent of the vote, gain legislative seats, and thwart the opposition’s goal of securing the two-thirds majority needed to impeach Allende. However, the legislative deadlock remained, and the election results only underscored Chile’s political polarization. Congressional opponents and other government foes increasingly pressured the armed forces to intervene.

In spite of Allende’s efforts to neutralize military opposition and stabilize his government by temporarily giving military leaders some cabinet posts, the regime’s military opponents, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, came to the fore. On September 11, 1973, military units attacked the presidential palace where Allende and some armed supporters were holding out. Allende died during the fighting, and his “Chilean Way” experiment was snuffed out by the military takeover and an ensuing brutal dictatorship.


The importance of Chile’s 1970 presidential election is that it spotlighted an experiment in peaceful revolutionary transformation that captured much international interest. Chile became the scene of the Western Hemisphere’s first constitutionally elected Marxist government. The UP’s democratic electoral triumph and Allende’s attempt to implement “The Chilean Way to Socialism” put to the test the revisionist “peaceful road” line the Soviet regime had advanced under Nikita S. Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. The violent ouster of Allende midway through his six-year term was a profound setback for this strategy.

Allende’s chances for success in the circumstances he encountered were slim, but success was perhaps not impossible to achieve, and he did accomplish some important goals in the effort to restructure Chilean society. However, the Socialist president was not able to navigate the daunting obstacles faced by his disunited minority government, which was beset by powerful domestic and foreign foes.

Allende’s fall ushered in a sixteen-year disruption of Chile’s admirable democratic political tradition. The ruling military junta under Pinochet banned political parties, dismissed the congress, and jailed, tortured, and murdered thousands of opponents, while forcibly restructuring the political system and implementing neoliberal free trade economic policies. The dictatorship’s failure to win majority support for its continuation in a 1989 plebiscite brought a restoration of democracy the following year under a center-left coalition of Christian Democrats and many of Allende’s more moderate supporters. Presidency, Chilean Presidential elections, Chilean

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bitar, Sergio. Chile: Experiment in Democracy. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1986. Argues that the conditions for enactment of UP’s program were favorable at the start and that neither the 1973 coup nor economic collapse was inevitable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faúndez, Julio. Marxism and Democracy in Chile, from 1932 to the Fall of Allende. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. Historical analysis of the policies of Chile’s Socialist and Communist Parties that places the developments of 1970-1973 in a clearer perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Israel Zipper, Ricardo. Politics and Ideology in Allende’s Chile. Tempe: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1997. General study that interprets the economy, society, and politics of the Allende period in a balanced manner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaufman, Edy. Crisis in Allende’s Chile: New Perspectives. New York: Praeger, 1988. Takes a fresh look at the role the United States and the Chilean military played in Allende’s overthrow while also underscoring the actions of interest groups, the political opposition, and problems of decision making within the government that influenced this outcome.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oppenheim, Lois Hecht. Politics in Chile: Democracy, Authoritarianism, and the Search for Development, 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Historical analysis of the dramatic political and socioeconomic transitions that marked Allende’s government, the ensuing military dictatorship, and return to democracy since 1990; focuses on the dynamics of political conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valenzuela, Arturo. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Chile. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. Argues that a successful outcome of talks between Allende and the Christian Democrats could have averted political breakdown and the military coup.

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Categories: History