November 26, 2005

Chile’s Bachelet eyes election triumph

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Socialist Michelle Bachelet is
sure she will become Chile's first woman president but she said
on Saturday it was unlikely she will win in the first round
next month.

Polls show Bachelet, 53, from the center-left coalition
that has run Chile for 15 years, will probably not get more
than 50 percent of the vote on December 11, but will
comfortably triumph in a two-way run-off in January.

"I know I'm going to win this election ... but I know it's
highly likely we'll go to a run-off," said Bachelet, adding
that she doubted any world leader has ever won more than 50
percent of the vote in a field of four strong candidates.

Bachelet, a medical doctor and former defense minister and
health minister, has seen support among potential voters drop
to 39 percent from 45 percent a few months ago, but she
rejected criticism that her campaign has been over-confident.

Tied for second place with about 20 percent each are two
rightist opposition candidates, Joaquin Lavin and Sebastian
Pinera, trailed by leftist Tomas Hirsch.

In a wide-ranging 90-minute breakfast with foreign
correspondents, Bachelet spoke of reducing inequalities in
Chilean society, former dictator Augusto Pinochet, and her
experience as defense minister.

Bachelet, who has rarely spoken with the foreign press in
the past year, said she would continue with popular fellow
socialist President Ricardo Lagos' economic policies of fiscal
discipline and open markets, but wants to improve education and
social programs to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

"People want a society that is not only successful but that
also has a lot more sense of community ... that does a better
job of protecting those left behind," she said.

Since Chile returned to democracy in 1990 after Pinochet's
17-year rule, poverty levels have dropped to one of the lowest
in the region and Chile, rich in copper, timber and other raw
materials, has thrived on open-market policies and free trade

Chile seems much closer to becoming a developed country
compared with its neighbors.

"Globalization is a fact and it also opens opportunities
for us," said Bachelet, signaling she would continue to pursue
free trade even though other leftist Latin American governments
have turned away from an Americas-wide free trade pact.


Bachelet said justice has been "slow but steady" for
Pinochet, who just turned 90 and faces dozens of accusations of
torture and assassination during his regime. She said his
arrest this week in a tax fraud case and a human rights case
shows Chile's democracy has matured.

Many Chileans were loyal to Pinochet for years, not
believing the human rights accusations or defending them as
necessary in a war against Communism.

Bachelet said the tax fraud charges, which legal experts
say are much easier to prove than responsibility in human
rights abuses, had opened people's eyes.

"A lot of people changed their view of what happened in
Chile. ... I believe that a huge majority of people now know
who Pinochet really was and I believe that's good for Chile,"
Bachelet said.

Bachelet, whose charisma and personal history as someone
who was tortured and exiled under the military dictatorship,
said her experience as an unlikely defense minister had taught
her negotiating skills that will help her improve relations
with Chile's neighbors, especially Bolivia and Peru, which are
historically resentful of their wealthier neighbor.

"Imagine when they named me defense minister ... I was a
woman, a Socialist, separated, agnostic, all the sins together
... there could have been a lot of mistrust from the commanders
in chief," Bachelet said, referring to Chile's conservative
military establishment.

She said that with open, direct communication she built
respect and trust with the military that lives on to this day.