January 15, 2006

Chileans elect their first woman president

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Socialist Michelle Bachelet was
elected Chile's first woman president on Sunday, consolidating
the growing strength of the left in Latin America.

Bachelet, from Chile's ruling center-left coalition, took
53.51 percent of the vote while opposition candidate Sebastian
Pinera had 46.48 percent, based on a count of 97.52 percent of
polling stations, the government Electoral Service said.

"I want to congratulate Michelle Bachelet for her triumph,"
Pinera, a moderate conservative and one of Chile's wealthiest
men, said in a concession speech on live television.

Bachelet, imprisoned and tortured during the 1973-1990
Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, will be the fourth consecutive
president from the center-left alliance formed in the 1980s to
oppose the military regime and that has run the country since
Pinochet stepped down in 1990.

Supporters filled Santiago's main boulevard as they
gathered outside Bachelet's downtown election headquarters
after results were read on television by an electoral official.

"We came to celebrate that for the first time in history
women have won. We're going to have another point of view (in
charge), more sensitive and more in touch with reality," said
Paula Chacon, a 35-year-old housewife who took her two children
along to join hundreds of people rejoicing and jumping up and
down in the street.


Bachelet, a medical doctor and former defense minister,
will be only the second woman elected to head a South American
nation, and the first who was not the widow of a former
president. She will be sworn in on March 11.

A Bachelet victory consolidates 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 July presidential election.

Bachelet is expected to be a pragmatic leftist -- in
contrast with more populist leaders at the helm in Argentina
and Venezuela -- following in the footsteps of popular outgoing
President Ricardo Lagos.

Investors forecast she will continue Lagos' prudent fiscal
policies, which have helped turn the copper-producing nation of
16 million people into the region's most stable economy with
one of Latin America's lowest rates of poverty.

Though she generally has pledged continuity, Bachelet
promises deep reform to Chile's private pension system, which
is admired around the world as a model but considered expensive
and inadequate at home.

Pinera, a former investment banker and senator who heads a
rightist alliance, said the country needed a change after 16
years under the left.

Chileans' biggest concerns are crime and unemployment and
on the campaign trail Pinera had pledged to create 1 million
jobs and put 12,000 more police on the streets.

But polls showed that most Chileans -- an austere,
skeptical people -- found Bachelet more trustworthy than

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

Bachelet also inherited the popularity of Lagos and a cycle
of economic prosperity in Chile, a mining giant enjoying record
high prices for copper.

(additional reporting by Hilary Burke)