January 15, 2006

Chileans elect socialist, first woman president

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Socialist Michelle Bachelet, a
separated mother and former political exile, won elections on
Sunday to become the first female president in socially
conservative Chile with a victory that underscores the left's
growing hold on Latin America.

With almost all votes counted, Bachelet, from Chile's
ruling center-left coalition, had 53 percent versus 47 percent
for opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera, the government
Electoral Service said.

"Who would have thought 20, 10, five years ago, that Chile
would elect a woman president? ... Thank you for inviting me to
lead this voyage," Bachelet told thousands of jubilant
supporters outside her electoral headquarters in downtown

Pinera, one of Chile's wealthiest men and a moderate
conservative who led a rightist alliance that has been in the
opposition for 16 years, congratulated Bachelet in a concession

Bachelet, 54, a medical doctor who was imprisoned and
tortured during the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship
before living in exile in the former East Germany and
Australia, will be the fourth consecutive president from the
center-left alliance that has run Chile since 1990.

The former defense minister is only the second woman
elected to head a South American nation, and the first who is
not the widow of a former president. She is set to be sworn in
on March 11.

"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 brought her two
children to the huge street celebration that filled Santiago's
main boulevard.

Among the jubilant crowd were trendy, pierced young people
and elderly couples.


Bachelet, an agnostic with three children from two
relationships, benefited from a shift to more secular values in
Chile, which until recently had a reputation as one of the
region's most traditional and socially conservative countries.

Political scientist Patricio Navia said women were crucial
to Bachelet's victory since it was the first time in Chile that
a majority of both sexes had voted for a leftist candidate. In
the past Chilean women always voted more conservatively than

"She should recognize that, and fulfill her pledge of
gender parity. I think that is the campaign promise that will
most shape her term in office," Navia said.

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.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in a weekly broadcast on
Sunday, called himself a "good friend" of Bachelet's.

Chavez, who says he is leading a socialist revolution in
his own country, has supported other leftists who have risen to
power in Latin America recently as part of his opposition to
what he calls U.S. imperialism.

Bachelet is expected to be a pragmatic leftist, 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 has
promised deep reform to Chile's private pension system, which
is admired around the world but considered expensive and
inadequate at home.

Critics said Bachelet's platform was vague and she was just
coasting on Lagos' approval rating of more than 60 percent, and
an economic boom from high prices for copper, Chile's main

Pinera, a former investment banker and senator who led the
rightist alliance, failed to convince Chileans they needed a
change after 16 years under the left, despite pledges to create
1 million jobs.

Polls showed most Chileans -- an austere, skeptical people
-- found Bachelet more trustworthy than Pinera.

(additional reporting by Hilary Burke)