January 11, 2006

Bachelet aims to be Chile’s first woman president

By Pav Jordan

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - A torture victim in the Augusto
Pinochet dictatorship, a former defense minister and a medical
doctor, Michelle Bachelet has parlayed her ability to connect
with voters into becoming the favorite to lead Chile as its
next president.

In a campaign that saw her lead narrow and then widen
again, Bachelet has remained the front-runner in the race to
Sunday's elections, and is likely to become the first woman to
lead the South American country.

"Together we recovered democracy for Chile," Bachelet said
during a recent presidential debate. "Now I invite you to be a
part of another historic moment by electing Chile's first ever
woman president. Let's make history."

Bachelet, also a former health minister, is a socialist
from the center-left coalition that has governed Chile since
the end of the 1973-1990 Pinochet regime.

A January 7 poll showed Bachelet with 41 percent of the
vote and Sebastian Pinera, her rightist, billionaire opponent,
with 29.7 percent. Earlier polls predicted a closer race.

The same poll showed Bachelet, known for her charisma when
she meets one-on-one with voters, winning high marks for
honesty and trustworthiness, and with a huge lead over Pinera
among lower-class women.

She failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote needed
for an outright win in a four-way first round presidential race
in December.


Bachelet is a separated mother of three and her liberal
social ideas at times clash with Chile's conservative elite,
but business leaders trust her to carry on the prudent economic
policies of her mentor, incumbent President Ricardo Lagos.

Chile's economy, heavily supported by soaring prices for
the nation's chief export, copper, has surged in the last two
years. Under three consecutive center-left governments Chile
has become the region's star economy.

Bachelet, a 54-year-old medical doctor, is also drawing the
support of young Chileans, particularly women who are making up
a rapidly increasing percentage of the work force and who
support one in three Chilean households.

"I think her brand of leadership will be tremendously
close, tremendously friendly and tremendously unhierarchical,"
said Marta Lagos, head of the MORI polling firm.

"I believe she will make a real attempt to transform
(Chile's) rigid social structure in terms of dismantling
inequalities." She said that otherwise Bachelet would continue
policies of the Lagos government.

Bachelet's brief imprisonment and torture at the beginning
of the military dictatorship and then unlikely later role as
defense minister, presents a compelling life story to Chileans.

She went into exile with her mother to Australia and
Germany after they were both released from prison.

Her father, an air force general, died of a heart attack in
a prison camp where he had been tortured. He was one of about
3,000 people who died or disappeared in political violence
during the military regime.

Critics have said Bachelet relies too much on her personal
image and family history to fuel her popularity, and that she
has failed to outline clear policies regarding how she will
combat the wide gap between rich and poor in Chile.