January 15, 2006

Chileans vote, seen electing woman president

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chileans voted for a new
president on Sunday and were expected to elect the South
American country's first woman leader, a socialist who is seen
beating a moderate conservative billionaire.

Three major media outlets projected Michelle Bachelet, a
medical doctor and former defense minister, would win with 53
percent of the vote, shortly before the first official vote
count was due around 6:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. EST).

Bio Bio radio and television stations Canal 13 and TVN, all
said opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera would lose with 47
percent of the vote, based on their own tally of official
counts at the first polling stations to close at 4:00 p.m.
(2:00 p.m. EST).

Bachelet, imprisoned and tortured during the 1973-1990
Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, would be the fourth consecutive
president from the center-left coalition that formed in the
1980s to oppose Pinochet. It has run the copper-producing
country of 16 million people since he stepped down in 1990.

"Today is the day of the citizens. It's their decision.
We're very calm and very optimistic," Bachelet, 54, said before
entering a polling station in eastern Santiago to vote.

A Bachelet victory would consolidate a shift to the left in
Latin America, where leftists now run Argentina, Brazil,
Uruguay and Venezuela, some with politics more extreme than
others. A socialist will soon take office in Bolivia and a
leftist is favored to win Mexico's presidential election in

Last month, Bachelet won 46 percent of the vote in a
four-way first-round. That was short of the absolute majority
she needed to avoid a runoff against Pinera, 56, who came in
second with 25 percent.


Bachelet pledges deep reforms to Chile's private pension
system, which is admired around the world as a model but
considered expensive and inadequate at home.

While Latin American elections often give investors
jitters, markets have taken Chile's campaign in stride,
confident that whoever wins will follow the prudent fiscal
policies that have helped make it the region's most stable

Bachelet would be only the second woman elected to head a
South American state, and the first who was not the widow of a
former president.

Pinera, a former investment banker and senator who heads a
rightist alliance, said the country needs a change after 16
years under the center-left Concertacion coalition.

"I believe we are going to have a great triumph today, a
triumph Chile needs because after so many years of the
Concertacion our country needs profound change," Pinera said
after voting.

With one of Latin America's lowest poverty rates, Chileans'
biggest concerns are crime and unemployment. On the campaign
trail Pinera pledged to create 1 million jobs and put 12,000
more police on the street.

Polls show that most Chileans -- an austere, skeptical
people -- find Bachelet more trustworthy than Pinera.

The agnostic woman with three children from two
relationships has also benefited from a shift to more secular
values in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

"I think it's cool, excellent a first woman president will
make history in Chile ... I think the Chilean mentality has
changed gradually and there won't be any problems with a woman
leader," said Hector Bustamante, 38, after voting in a
working-class neighborhood in northern Santiago.

Bachelet is benefiting from the popularity of outgoing
President Ricardo Lagos and a cycle of economic prosperity in
Chile, a mining giant enjoying record high prices for copper.

Under Chilean law Lagos could not run for a consecutive
term, but admirers applauded him after he voted in downtown
Santiago, chanting "2010," suggesting he should run next time

"President Lagos left things on track and she just has to
continue," said Sergio Pizarro, 34, as he voted.

(Additional reporting by Froilan Romero)