December 12, 2005

Chile’s Bachelet faces reunited right in run-off

By Pav Jordan

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chilean socialist Michelle
Bachelet faces a tight race to become the first woman president
of Latin America's star economy in a run-off vote in January,
when she will face a reunited rightist alliance.

Bachelet, from the center-left coalition that has ruled
Chile since the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990,
failed to win more than 50 percent support in elections on
Sunday, forcing a second-round vote against conservative
billionaire and former senator Sebastian Pinera.

With 96 percent of the votes counted, Bachelet had 45.9
percent and opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera, from the
moderate wing of Chile's conservatives, was second with 25.5
percent. Far-left candidate Tomas Hirsch had 5.4 percent.

In the congressional vote, the center-left coalition won a
majority of seats in the Senate for the first time ever and
boosted its slight majority in the lower house.

Joaquin Lavin, the other candidate from Chile's
conservatives who have been in the opposition for 15 years,
threw his support behind Pinera on election night, mending the
rightist alliance that had been fractured during the campaign.

Pinera, speaking soon after sealing his alliance with Lavin
with a handshake and hug, said from his campaign headquarters
in a Santiago hotel that the right would go after voters in the
center of the political spectrum.

"We're going to continue to invite people from the center
and independents, people who share our Christian humanist
values," he said.

The right may have a difficult time drawing votes, however,
in an economy that is enjoying some of its best times ever as
high prices for copper, Chile's top export, help push it to its
biggest budget surpluses ever this year.

If elected Bachelet, a separated mother of three who was
tortured during Chile's 1973-1990 dictatorship, would extend
the policies of a center-left coalition that has cut poverty by
half and overseen the country's transformation into the
region's most stable economy.

Bachelet, a medical doctor and former defense minister, has
pledged to overhaul Chile's private pension system and continue
the liberal social programs and free-market economic policies
of her mentor, popular President Ricardo Lagos.

At the end of the first round on Sunday, Bachelet and her
campaign team said they might have done better in the first
round, and pledged to campaign the length of Chile in the next
month to reach more Chileans before the January race.

"Now we are ready to fix that situation," said Ricardo
Lagos Weber, the outgoing president's son and a strategist for

(Additional reporting by Louise Egan)