The Washington Post
Monday, January 16, 2006; A01

Chile Elects First Female President

Bachelet, a Former Political Prisoner, Will Keep Socialists in Power

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service

SANTIAGO, Chile, Jan. 15 -- Socialist Party candidate Michelle Bachelet, a political prisoner during Gen. Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship and a single mother of three, was elected president on Sunday, the first woman to lead a country long considered one of the most culturally traditional in Latin America.

With 97 percent of voting sites reporting, Bachelet had won 53 percent of the vote to about 47 percent for billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera.

Thousands of supporters filled the streets around Bachelet's election night headquarters here to celebrate, waving banners and chanting her name.

"I never thought I would see this happen," said Margarita Flores, 35, a supporter who held a bag of confetti. "Finally, a woman."

Bachelet's victory will keep the Socialist Party in the presidential palace for four more years, following the presidency of Ricardo Lagos. When Lagos won the 2000 election, it was the first time a Socialist had held the seat in Chile since 1973, when Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende. What followed was a 17-year dictatorship, marked by widespread human rights violations, that would fundamentally shape the personal and political life of Bachelet.

She is the daughter of a Chilean air force general who served under Allende and who was imprisoned and tortured after the coup. He died in prison. Two years later, government forces detained Bachelet and her mother, putting them in prison, where they were tortured. She eventually went into exile in Australia and Europe, returning to Chile in 1979 to work as a pediatrician. Under Lagos, she became health minister in 2000 and defense minister in 2002.

"You know that I have not had an easy life, but who has had an easy life?" Bachelet told supporters Sunday night during a victory speech in downtown Santiago. "Violence entered my life, destroying what I loved. Because I was a victim of hate, I have dedicated my life to turn that hate into understanding, into tolerance and, why not say it, into love."

"It is a historic triumph," Lagos said in a televised speech Sunday evening. "We are a new Chile, and having a woman as president shows that."

With Bachelet's election, Chilean voters continued a region-wide trend toward the political left in national elections. The most recent presidential elections in Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have brought liberal or socialist candidates to power, creating two distinct groupings of leaders in South America. In countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia, the prevailing political discourse questions the benefits of free-trade agreements and encourages more independence from U.S. government and business interests. Bachelet, however, is expected by analysts to fall into the second grouping, represented by fiscally conservative presidents who aim to direct government spending toward social programs.

The Lagos government was close to the United States on trade matters and was the first South American government to sign a bilateral trade pact with the United States. While serving on the U.N. Security Council before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, Chile cast a crucial vote against U.N. authorization for the war.

Bachelet inherits from Lagos a thriving economy, which has benefited from soaring copper prices. Modernization was a cornerstone of the Lagos government; Santiago's subway system has doubled its length, for example. But many Chileans, moved by the soft, motherly image that Bachelet at times projected during her campaign, hope she will spread the wealth to more of those in need.

"Many here think Chile doesn't have a soul and has very little sensitivity for its people," said Raul Sohr, a political analyst in Santiago. "There's been a lot of growth in recent years, but the distribution of income is still appalling. A lot of people are hoping that she'll put a little heart into the very technocratic changes that previous administrations have made."

Bachelet has promised to reform Chile's private pension system, which was singled out by President Bush as a possible model for privatizing the U.S. Social Security system. But the system is often criticized in Chile for failing to adequately protect the poor.

Bachelet also promised child care for low-income mothers and has pledged to fill at least half of her cabinet posts with women.

Sunday's runoff election was called when no candidate won a majority in a first round of voting in December, when Bachelet won 46 percent of the vote and Piñera 26 percent.

Piñera, 56, one of Chile's wealthiest citizens, owns parts of the country's largest airline, bank, shipping company and industrial group. Representing a coalition of conservative parties, he reached out to centrists who have consistently voted into power a coalition of liberal parties in every election since Pinochet left office.

In the waning days of the campaign, Piñera emphasized his Christian faith -- an implicit counterpoint to Bachelet, who publicly describes herself as agnostic. Chile is predominantly Catholic, and it legalized divorce for the first time in late 2004.

Bachelet has joked to reporters that as a woman, separated, agnostic and Socialist, she appears to some to represent "all of the sins together." But the combination did not seem to turn off voters, many of whom said they were attracted to her compassion and the promise of change she represented. At one point during the campaign, she took a short break to vacation with her daughter, and she has emphasized that she seeks to balance her roles as a political figure and mother.

"People are expecting changes with Bachelet," said Marta Lagos, a Santiago-based pollster with Mori Chile. "They're not expecting political changes as much as cultural ones -- less discrimination and more openness."

The ranks of working women in Chile have doubled since 1990, but the figure stands at only 36 percent -- the lowest rate in Latin America. Women also earn 30 to 40 percent less than their male counterparts, according to the Chilean government agency that deals with women's issues.

Some Chilean women said they were hopeful that Bachelet can change this. When asked whether she believed discrimination against women was a problem in Chile, Daniela Soltelo, 22, turned off the espresso machine in the pastry shop where she works and lowered her eyebrows suspiciously.

"Of course it is," Soltelo said. "But I think that's about to change."