January 15, 2006

Chileans seen electing woman president in vote

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chileans began voting for a new
president on Sunday and are expected to elect the South
American country's first woman leader, a socialist who leads a
moderate conservative billionaire in opinion polls.

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.

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.

Polling stations began opening at 8:00 a.m. (1100 GMT) and
will start closing at 4:00 p.m. (1900 GMT). The first results
are expected at around 6:30 p.m. (2130 GMT).

"Today is the day of the citizens. It's their decision.
We're very calm and very optimistic," Bachelet said before
entering a polling station in eastern Santiago to vote.

A Bachelet victory would consolidate a shift to the left in
Latin America, where different shades of leftists now 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
jitters, markets have taken Chile's presidential campaign in
stride, confident that whoever who wins will follow the prudent
fiscal policies that have helped make it 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, has focused on Chileans' main
concerns: unemployment and crime.

He pledges to create 1 million jobs in four years and put
12,000 more police on the street.

"He's a super-intelligent guy and he has money so he's not
going to rob the country. He's going to give jobs to extremely
poor housewives. The country needs a change," said Elizabeth
Ortega, a 32-year-old paramedic, after voting in Santiago.

But polls show that most Chileans -- an austere, skeptical
people -- find Bachelet more trustworthy than Pinera.

The agnostic woman with three children from two
relationships has also benefited from a shift to more secular
values in the predominantly Catholic country.

Bachelet is 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.

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

(Additional reporting by Lisa Yulkowski)