The 1988 Franja de Propaganda Electoral and the Mediatization of Chilean Politics

This text is partially drawn from a presentation given at UCSD on September 23, 2016. Coincidentally, the date of this presentation was also the 43rd anniversary of the death of Pablo Neruda.


 

The aerial bombing and violent seizure of the presidential palace of La Moneda on September 11, 1973 was the first demonstration of how far Augusto Pinochet would go to alter Chilean politics during his seventeen years as dictator of Chile. By the late 1980s, Pinochet’s hold on power was unyielding, political reconciliation with the military was unimaginable, and civil war seemed inevitable. Under these circumstances, official preparations began in earnest for the military to convene for a third and final plebiscite in 1988. This process was designed to culminate in the establishment of a “Protected Democracy” – a political order that would legitimate the existing regime by declaring itself a democracy, was bound to the political economic tenets of the Chicago school of economics, and precluded any participation of left wing political parties. This “Protected Democracy” was perceived by the dictatorship as key to its continued political dominance for at least another decade. The entire process would be a controlled one. Pinochetistas were certain it would work out in their favor, and in the end, even if things should go awry, their interests would remain protected by the power of the Chilean armed forces.

Thus, what became known as “El Plebiscito” was scheduled to take place on October 5, 1988, to be decided according to a simple vote of or NO; a or “YES” victory would be a democratizing mandate for the dictator to retain power in Chile for another eight years, but now serving as a “democratically elected” president. A NO victory, on the other hand, required Pinochet to convene new presidential elections within twelve months of the 1988 vote, and subsequently surrender his “presidential power” to a newly elected leader, chosen from a field of civilian candidates.


This essay tells the story of the Franja de Propaganda Electoral of 1988. What loosely translates as “the official space for electoral propaganda”, was a nationally televised, largely uncensored, 30-minute political program, representing the two sides of the 1988 Plebiscito; the NO campaign in opposition to the military regime on the one hand, and on the other hand, the pro-Pinochet campaign.

Sanctioned and coordinated by the Chilean military dictatorship, access to the Franja Electoral was afforded to both sides of the “El Plebiscito”, each assigned 15 minutes of nationally televised airtime beginning at 10:45 p.m. (11:45 am on weekends), back-to-back, every night, running for the final 27 days of the Plebiscito campaign before the vote was to take place. The evocative power of the Franja campaign was evident from the first broadcast. On September 5th, 1988, the moment arrived for Day 1 of the nationally televised Franja De Propaganda Electoral. That day represented the culmination of months of intense and risk-laden organizing by members and supporters of the NO campaign. At exactly 10:45 p.m., a green screen was broadcast on every television channel throughout Chile, and Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto No. 8 in D minor” filled rooms across the country. The disembodied voice of the military regime entered abruptly to read aloud the following words as they were flashed on the screen:

IN COMPLIANCE WITH PROVISIONS REGARDING ELECTORAL PROGRAMS, ALL TELEVISION CHANNELS SHOULD INTEGRATE THE NATIONAL NETWORK AS OF THIS INSTANT.

The well-known TV-personality, Patricio Bañados, opened the NO campaign with a short, but meaningful statement:

Chile, happiness is on its way.

Good evening. For the first time in 15 years, those of us who do not share the official way of thinking, have the opportunity to address you through a television program of our own. This is also an opportunity for me to reconnect with this profession, from which i was marginalized more than five years ago.

But, of course, 15 minutes, in 15 years, is not very much time, so let us begin by sharing that happiness, the one that is coming our way.

Suddenly, millions of television sets across the country began to sing the oppositional jingle “Chile, La Alegría Ya Viene.” This moment electrified Chileans across the country, and marked the beginning of a qualitative shift in Chilean political culture that would become the mediatization of Chilean politics.

The televised Franja Electoral campaign continued for another 26 days. Despite of their media proscription, performers and artists who had been marginalized from government-controlled broadcasting (such as NO campaign anchor Patricio Bañados pictured above) were suddenly back on TV, and with a distinctly uninhibited and even liberatory swagger to their presentation. Or as was the case of the highly popular, youth oriented, and politically conscious Chilean rockers Los Prisioneros, the Franjas would be the first time their existence was ever acknowledged on national Chilean TV. The NO Franjas were both a televisual political event and a sociocultural experience. It was a mediated catharsis for millions of Chileans that did not support Pinochet, who the first time saw themselves and many others like them on national television.

The Franjas of the NO campaign unexpectedly introduced a vision of Chilean democracy composed of beautiful smiling faces, pirouetting bodies, mimes, catchy jingles, and ironic humor. It included comedic sketches, musical presentations, intense drama, as well as thinly veiled threats. A unique mediatized form of oppositional politics was broadcast nationally and internationally for the world to appreciate, and subsequently inspire depictions of happy “forward looking” Chileans, dancing and blissful, peacefully waiting for a chance to vote NO and thereby open the door for democracy to arrive in Chile in the form of esa alegría – that “happiness that was on its way.” This was how during September of 1988 the televised Franjas introduced a new, though thoroughly fictive understanding of what Chilean democracy represented to Chileans and to the world.

The average number of daily viewers numbered 4.5 million, and it was immediately ranked the most widely viewed TV program in Chile, scoring the highest ratings in the history of Chilean television up to that moment – ten points higher than the most popular show Sábado Gigante (Piñuel Raigada 1992: 14, Boas 2015: 9, Quilter 1989: 300). By the time the “El Plebiscito” vote arrived, 93% of registered voters had watched at least one day of Franja Electoral programming (ibid).

On October 5, 1988, 56% of the Chilean electorate voted against Pinochet. Notwithstanding the lack of substantive political, economic, and institutional change throughout the country, on March 11, 1990, over a year and a half after “El Plebiscito”, Pinochet ceremoniously handed the presidential sash to the leader of his legal opposition, Patricio Aylwin, thus initiating a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Chile.

Multiple sectors of the Chilean political class declared that the cheerful and relatively innocuous television campaign developed by Pinochet’s opposition had been the key factor that tipped the scales in favor of the NO campaign enough to cajole an electoral victory from the Chilean military dictatorship (Piñuel Raigada 1992, Tironi 2013). After the vote, opinion polls were conducted to track what Chileans thought about the Franjas. The most frequent descriptors expressed by viewers of the Franjas were that they felt like a “breath of freedom” (Quilter 1989: 303). The 27 televised Franja programs remain the most fascinating cultural/ political artifacts produced during this period in Chilean history.

For many viewers who had grown up politically under the military regime and had only experienced the total instrumentalization of TV, it was a tremendous shock to see a representation of Chilean politics that was so fundamentally different from the official portrayals of Chilean politics produced by the government and its television allies. At times, the NO Franjas were openly critical of Pinochet on national TV! During the 15 years previous to the Franja campaign, nationally televised direct critical representations of the dictator were something which no one would have dreamed possible.

30 years later the discursive power of that initial moment is still palpable. Franja themes and imagery have since helped reproduce a political mythology in a country that, for the next twenty years, voted in favor of la Concertación governance. There are multiple accounts about how the televised programs of the NO have come to represent a seminal moment in Chilean political communication. Latin Americanist Paula Cronovich claims that the NO Franjas “left a mark on the nation’s collective memory; its rainbow emblem and the lyrics and tune of its upbeat jingle still stick in people’s minds” (2013: 2). Within the context of the highly restrained 1988 Plebiscito, the Franjas appearred suddenly as a new, exciting, yet ephemeral public sphere – just beyond the repressive reach of the Pinochetista regime, within which a seemingly impossible transition was not only articulated, but also, through which, a transformation of Chilean political culture was engendered. “For the latent oppositional majority, [it was] an affective and visual space in which anti-authoritarian sentiments could be placed, shared and made explicit…” (Crofts Wiley 2006: 680).

Franja mythology gained prominence after the 1988 Plebiscito to serve as a cultural prophylactic, helping mollify the institutional reemergence of unresolved tensions, conceal the impunity enjoyed by a substantial part of the political elite, and soothe repressed memories of human rights violations in Chile. In the wake of the 25th anniversary of the 1988 plebiscite, biographies, novels, theatrical plays, and even an Oscar nominated feature film were produced to tell the story of the now-mythical Franja de Propaganda Electoral. Unsurprisingly, most of these artistic renditions focus on the Franjas develop by the NO campaign. Beyond celebrating how the NO Franjas supported the negotiated political transition in Chile, there are few accounts about how their situated, short-term logics influenced Chilean collective memory of this period as a function of residual Pinochetista power. Indeed, Chileans were compelled to alter their understanding of what democracy and human rights meant for them. To be sure, the televised campaign can only be understood when both the NO and  Franjas are viewed together, as they were experienced in 1988. Furthermore, the recorded history of human rights violations in Chile stands in sharp contrast to Franja de Propaganda Electoral production and content. This  differentiation provides insight into how the month-long televised campaign helped graft the myth of change and reconciliation onto the body of Chilean political culture, and helped suppress the collective memory of human rights abuses in Chile.


One fascinating aspect of Franja history that merits a closer examination is the difficulty if locating a complete set of this audiovisual material. Despite its mythical status, a complete set of the 1988 Franjas is not available through any institutional collection within Chile. The material is impossible to find because at the end of the Pinochet dictatorship a series of “leyes de amarre” or binding laws were hurriedly passed to protect the image and interests of Pinochet’s supporters after his official exit from power. According to one of these dictatorial laws, no audio-visual material produced in Chile during the dictatorship can be made publicly available unless someone who has the rights over said material authorizes its circulation. The process to clear the content for public circulation was completed for the anti-Pinochet NO programming, but not for the pro-Pinochet programming. Those that supported the Pinochet regime during the 1988 plebiscite collectively refuse to acknowledge their role in producing the SÍ Franjas, thereby blocking their distribution within Chile to this day, nearly 30 years after they were broadcast nationally for “El Plebiscito.”


To help explain the unique entanglement of media, power and political culture that is embodied by the 1988 Franjas, I draw from a conceptual framework known as mediatization theory to examine the Franja Electoral as a sample case for the mediatization of Chilean politics. I propose that this case is best understood as a sociohistorical process rooted in the cultural assimilation of an imagined political configuration – the collective reconciliation of a contradictory relationship between what was politically viable as a social and historical course of action, with what was represented as acceptable in a mediated, televisual space of Chilean political culture. In other words, the Franjas initiated the mediatization of Chilean politics that would ultimately help Chile reconcile the irreconcilable. My use of mediatization theory involves the incorporation of elements of Sociocultural Theory to help analyze the Franja Electoral as an artifact of Chilean political culture; a mediated embodiment of an enduring qualitative shift in the meaning of Chilean Democracy itself.

Additionally, my work in this field helped in the recovery of an exceptionally rare, complete collection of the 1988 Franja Electoral, and includes one of only a handful of content analyses performed on this important audio-visual material.

I conclude this stage of my research convinced that what I have discovered is essential for a more critical understanding of contemporary, hyper-mediated, youth oriented political movements, such as the anti-H.R. 4437 movement (2006), the Arab Spring (2010), Occupy Wall Street (2011), #YoSoy132 (2012), Black Lives Matter (2013), and even Trumpism (2015/2016), when this last phenomena is understood as a broad cultural process that will endure beyond the Trump presidency.


The following is a 10-minute sample of Franja content drawn from the nearly 13 hours of audio/visual material that was broadcast nationally on behalf of both the NO and campaigns:

08/08/2017 – Please note that the video embedded below was originally uploaded to YouTube in September of 2016. When it was uploaded to my personal YouTube channel I marked the video as “unlisted,” making it unavailable to the general public, as it was intended only for viewing for a closed presentation. At some point during early 2017, two companies, “egeda” and “egeda Wildside” claimed the copyright for this content but did not block it from my channel, choosing only to “monetize” the content in their favor. I have not been able to find any information about these companies, much less the basis for their copyright claim. At some point during the summer of 2017, Canal 13 SpA also claimed to own the copyright of this material, and instructed YouTube to completely block the video from my personal page. To be clear, YouTube does not investigate copyright claims, and it is usually enough to receive a random claim for YouTube to block the distribution of content. I decided to leave the blocked video on this page to serve as a reminder that a complete set of the 1988 Franjas is not available anywhere online. I also moved the original excerpts to my own server, and you can now view the original 10-minute sample of the Franjas off YouTube at this link: <http://www.qvole.org/wp/730-2/>.


Boas, Taylor C. (2015). “Voting for Democracy: Campaign Effects in Chile’s Democratic Tradition.” Latin American Politics and Society 57.2.

Crofts Wiley, Stephen B (2006). “Assembled agency: media and hegemony in the Chilean transition to civilian rule.” Media, Culture & Society 28.5: 671-693.

Cronovich, Paula (2013). “The ‘NO’ Campaign in Chile: Paving a Peaceful Transition to Democracy”. Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Discussion Paper, February.

Piñuel Raigada, José Luis (1992). Cultura y Comunicación Política en la Transición en Chile. Madrid: Centro Español de Estudios de América Latina (CEDEAL).

Quilter, Peter A. (1989). “Television in the Chilean Plebiscite of 1988.” Fletcher Forum on World Affairs 3: 295-305.

Tironi, Eugenio (2013). Sin Miedo, Sin Odio, Sin Violencia: Una Historia Personal Del NO. Santiago: Editorial Planeta Chilena.