December 11, 2005

Socialist Bachelet faces runoff after Chile election

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Socialist Michelle Bachelet,
who aims to be Chile's first woman president, will face a
united right wing in a January 15 runoff after failing to win
more than 50 percent of the vote in an election on Sunday.

With 82 percent of the votes counted, Bachelet had 45.8
percent and opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera, a
billionaire from the moderate wing of Chile's conservatives,
was second with 25.7 percent.

"I would have liked to have won in a first round," said a
tired looking Bachelet, who promised to campaign the length of
Chile before the second-round vote next month.

"Our result could have been better, maybe our message
didn't reach enough people with enough force."

Joaquin Lavin, another candidate from Chile's divided
conservatives who have been out of power since Augusto
Pinochet's dictatorship ended in 1990, ceded the election and
said he would back Pinera in the second round.

"The people have spoken. That's democracy," said Lavin, who
had about 23 percent of the vote.

If elected Bachelet, a separated mother of three who was
tortured during Chile's 1973-1990 dictatorship, would extend
the 15-year rule of a center-left coalition that has cut
poverty by half and overseen the country's transformation into
the region's star economy.

Bachelet, a medical doctor and former defense minister, has
pledged to overhaul Chile's private pension system and continue
the liberal social programs and free-market economic policies
of her mentor, popular President Ricardo Lagos.

Support for an agnostic, independent woman like Bachelet
shows a dramatic shift in values in this traditionally
conservative, Roman Catholic country of 16 million people where
divorce was legalized only last year and where "machismo" or
male chauvinism is strong.


Political scientist Patricio Navia cautioned that Bachelet
would have a tough fight in January.

"This is not good news for Bachelet," he said, noting that
the combined total of votes for the two right-wing candidates
exceeded those for Bachelet.

"Today the (rightist) alliance for Chile has won over 50
percent of the nation's hearts," said a smiling Pinera minutes
after Lavin pledged to support him in a second-round vote.

Other analysts have said not all Lavin supporters could be
counted on to vote for Pinera in a second round.

Even so, Bachelet's center-left bloc took firm control of
both houses of Congress for the first time in parliamentary
elections that also took place on Sunday.

"We triumphed in the presidential election, in the election
of senators and deputies. I expect we'll triumph the same a
month from now," Lagos said in a brief televised statement.

If she wins, Bachelet will continue the moderate socialism
of Lagos, as leftist momentum builds in Latin America.
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela all have leftist
leaders, and Bolivia, Mexico and Peru could follow in coming


Chileans lined up under a blazing summer sun to vote and
Red Cross workers helped those who collapsed in the heat.

"I decided to vote in these elections because it is a
historic event where for the first time ever there is a great
chance of a woman being elected president," said Luis Oliva, a
19-year-old dressed in jeans and a T-shirt who voted for the
first time in Renca, a working-class neighborhood of Santiago.

"I wanted to be a player in writing Chile's future
history," he said.

Many voters said they supported Bachelet because of her
opposition to the dictatorship when she was a medical student.

She and her mother were arrested in the mid 1970s and taken
to a political prison run by Pinochet's secret police. They
escaped the most severe tortures used at the time, but were
beaten, blindfolded and starved before being set free. Both
went into exile.

Bachelet recently told reporters that her past made her an
unlikely defense minister under Lagos, given Chile's
conservative military establishment.

"I was a woman, a Socialist, separated, agnostic, all the
sins together," she said.

Pinochet, 90, did not vote because he is under house arrest
on charges of human rights abuses during his rule. In elections
six years ago he was being held in London on a Spanish arrest
warrant, also on accusations of human rights abuses.

(Additional reporting by Froilan Romero and Louise Egan)