January 14, 2006

Chile likely to elect first female president

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chileans go to the polls on
Sunday and are expected to elect the South American country's
first female president, a socialist who is leading in the race
against a moderate conservative billionaire.

Michelle Bachelet, a medical doctor and former defense
minister who was imprisoned and tortured early in the 1973-1990
Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, has a 5-point lead over
opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera, the latest poll showed.

Chile has a reputation as a very conservative country and
it legalized divorce only two years ago. A recent dramatic
shift to more liberal social values has aided Bachelet, a
separated mother of three.

If she wins, Bachelet will be the fourth consecutive
president from the center-left coalition that formed in the
1980s to oppose Pinochet and has run the country of 16 million
people since he stepped down in 1990.

A Bachelet victory would also consolidate a shift to the
left in Latin America, where different shades of leftists run
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela. A socialist will soon
take office in Bolivia and a leftist is favored to win Mexico's
presidential election in July.

Last month, Bachelet won 46 percent of the vote in a
four-way first-round presidential election. It was short of the
absolute majority she needed to avoid a January runoff against
Pinera, 56, who came in second with 25 percent.


Bachelet pledges deep reforms to Chile's private pension
system, which is admired around the world as a model but is
considered expensive and inadequate at home.

While Latin American elections often give investors the
jitters, Wall Street has taken Chile's presidential campaign in
stride, confident that whoever who wins will follow the prudent
fiscal policies that have helped to make this the region's most
stable economy.

Bachelet, 54, would be only the second woman elected to
head a South American state, and the first who was not the
widow of a former president. Janet Jagan of Guyana was elected
to succeed her husband, Cheddi Jagan, as president in 1997
after he died.

Pinera, a former senator who owns 27 percent of Chile's
dominant airline, LAN Airlines, failed to inspire a majority of
voters despite focusing on Chileans' main concerns,
unemployment and crime. He pledges to create 1 million jobs in
four years and put 12,000 police on the street.

Polls show that Chileans, an austere, skeptical people,
found Bachelet more trustworthy and honest.

Bachelet is also riding a wave of popularity for outgoing
President Ricardo Lagos and a cycle of economic prosperity in
Chile, a mining giant enjoying record high prices for copper.
Under 16 years of center-left governments, Chile's poverty rate
fell to 18 percent from 40 percent of the population.

Pinochet, for more than two decades a dominant force in
Chile, has lost relevance in politics and is under indictment
for tax fraud and human rights abuses. The 90-year-old former
strongman plans to sit out the election at his country estate,
his spokesman said.

Voting is mandatory for registered voters and the election
falls in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere's summer. So
many people postponed trips to the beach or to the lakes
district in the south until after the vote, to the dismay of
business owners in unusually empty tourist hot spots.

The winner of Sunday's election will take office in March
and serve for four years. Congress recently changed the
constitution to cut the term from six years.

(Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara and Manuel