December 7, 2005

Chile to vote for president, socialist tops polls

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chile will choose on Sunday
between a candidate who could be the first woman president for
Latin America's star economy, and two hopefuls from the
right-wing that has been out of power since 1990.

Michelle Bachelet, who was imprisoned and tortured under
the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, leads polls. But
the Socialist Party candidate could fall short of 50 percent of
votes and head to a January run-off that will likely be a tight
race with one of the opposition candidates.

Polls show conservative former Santiago mayor Joaquin Lavin
and the center-right candidate Sebastian Pinera, a former
Senator and one of Chile's wealthiest men, are tied for second
place and have enough support to force a second round.

"This election is not going to be resolved on Sunday. A
second round is going to be necessary and no one knows which of
the rightist candidates will pass to that round," said Andres
Passicot, director of Gemines Consultores, business consulting,
market study and polling firm.

Bachelet, former defense minister and doctor, has
campaigned on continuing the free market economic policies and
liberal social programs of popular President Ricardo Lagos, who
cannot run for immediate re-election.

While her social policies are more liberal than Chile's
conservative elite, business leaders trust Bachelet will stick
to the ruling coalition's economic program including fiscal
discipline and trade pacts with countries all over the world.

"We found no major fears about the eventual electoral
outcome, as the main presidential hopefuls agree with the
current macro-economic principles," wrote Credit Suisse First
Boston economist Alonso Cervera in a report.

Cervera said that since Bachelet's support has slipped in
recent opinion polls her win is no longer guaranteed.

Lavin, who almost won the presidency in a close race with
Lagos six years ago, and Pinera, have both attacked the ruling
coalition in weak spots such as rising crime and stubbornly
high rates of unemployment.


Under three center-left governments from a coalition that
grew out of opposition to the Pinochet regime, Chile has
prospered to the brink of becoming a developed nation.

Poverty in this long, thin South American country between
the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, has been cut in half to 18
percent of the population, one of the lowest levels in the

Lagos is leaving with his approval rating at 60 percent,
and with the economy booming thanks to record high prices for
copper, the country's main export, and strong demand for other
products such as wood pulp, wine, salmon and fertilizer.

In his last weeks in office, Lagos ran from one
ribbon-cutting ceremony to another, inaugurating new highways,
new prisons, and new subway lines that impress visitors with
Chile's level of development.

Bachelet comes from the same group of center-leftists who
have run the country since it returned to democracy when
Pinochet stepped down in 1990.

She and her mother were briefly jailed and tortured after
the 1973 military coup that launched Pinochet to power, then
they lived in exile. Her father was a general who died in
prison after being tortured.

If victorious, Bachelet would be the fourth elected woman
leader in Latin America, after Nicaragua's Violeta Chamorro,
Panama's Mireya Moscoso, and Guyana's Janet Jagan.

"Men don't need to get nervous," she told foreign
correspondents recently. "I'm talking about equality of

Chile's next president will take office in March and serve
a four year term, after Congress reformed the Constitution this
year and reduced the term from six years.