December 11, 2005

Chileans may elect woman leader on Sunday

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - A socialist who was tortured
and exiled under Chile's military dictatorship moved a step
closer to becoming the country's first woman leader as voters
in Latin America's star economy cast ballots on Sunday.

Polls show front-runner Michelle Bachelet is likely to
become the fourth consecutive president from the center-left
coalition that has been in power since the end in 1990 of
Augusto Pinochet's 17-year regime.

But Bachelet, who won popularity in 2003 as an unlikely
defense minister, was not anticipated to get the more than 50
percent of the vote needed to win in the first round against
two candidates from the divided rightist opposition.

Riding Chile's robust economy she is expected to triumph in
a run-off on January 15, probably with a firm hold on Congress,
where her bloc is expected to solidify majorities in both
houses in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

"This is a day where each woman and each man is worth the
same, one vote. ... I'm confident we are going to elect a woman
president for the first time in Chile's history," Bachelet said
after casting her ballot.

Chileans lined up to vote in scorching summer weather. Red
Cross workers helped people who collapsed in the heat at
several polling stations.

The earliest polling stations to open in the morning
started to close at 4:00 p.m. (1900 GMT) and the first official
results will be released at 6:30 p.m. (2130 GMT).

"We (women) have to demonstrate that we are capable. We are
in charge at home and we can also be in charge (of the
country)," said Maria Ines Rigole, 49, who cast a ballot for
Bachelet in eastern Santiago.

Bachelet, a separated mother of three and an agnostic,
represents a dramatic change in Chile over the last five years
in attitudes about birth control, homosexuality and teenage
sex. Chile legalized divorce just last year.

She has pledged a major overhaul of Chile's private pension
system, and is expected to continue the successful mix of
free-market economics and leftist social reforms of popular
President Ricardo Lagos, who cannot run again. If elected,
Bachelet will serve a four-year term.


Each of the right-wing opposition candidates proclaimed he
would be the one to face Bachelet in the run-off.

"There will be a second round and it will be Michelle
Bachelet on one side, leading the somewhat worn-out (ruling
bloc), and me on the other side heading a new, younger,
stronger coalition," said billionaire former Sen. Sebastian
Pinera, who represents the right's moderate wing.

Pinera, who has promised to create 1 million jobs to bring
down stubbornly high unemployment, was favored in opinion polls
over the more conservative Joaquin Lavin, who made the fight
against crime a key campaign issue.

"I am absolutely sure that I am going to go to the second
round. I believe in the ... hidden vote of the people who were
quiet during the opinion polls," said Lavin, who came close to
winning the presidency in a tight 2000 run-off with Lagos.

Pinochet, 90, did not vote because he is under house arrest
on charges of human rights abuses. In elections six years ago
he was being held in London on a Spanish arrest warrant, also
on human rights abuse accusations.

Chile, a narrow country of 16 million people along South
America's Pacific coast, is a regional model of political and
economic stability, with impressive modern infrastructure,
little corruption and one of the lowest poverty indices.

A smiling Lagos was cheered by a crowd of more than a
hundred people when he went to vote.

He 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.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Yulkowski)