Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist pediatrician, has been elected Chile's first woman president, with her opponent conceding that the former political prisoner has won. The victory by the governing centre-left coalition on Sunday kept Chile in pace with a steady leftward trend in Latin America.
With 67% of some eight million votes counted, Bachelet had 53.2% of the official count to 46.7% of Sebastian Pinera, a multimillionaire businessman. Pinera quickly congratulated Bachelet as "president-elect" and added: "I also wish Michelle the greatest possible success." He vowed "to continue to fight for our principles, which do not die today. Our battle continues". Bachelet's centre-left coalition has governed Chile since the end of General Augusto Pinochet's rule in 1990. Its mix of socialist ideology with free-market economics has produced a booming economy.
Michelle Bachelet was a torture victim during Pinochet's rule, a former defence minister and a medical doctor. She is also a socialist who has parlayed her ability to connect with voters into becoming Chile's first woman president. Bachelet's brief imprisonment and torture at the beginning of the 1973-1990 military rule and her unlikely later role as defence minister presented 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 3000 people who died or disappeared in political violence during military rule. 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, Ricardo Lagos, the outgoing president.
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 centre-left governments Chile has become the region's star economy. "Together we recovered democracy for Chile," Bachelet, the front-runner during the campaign, said in a 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."
A poll this month 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 had failed to win more than 50% of the vote needed for an outright victory in a four-way first round presidential race in December.
Bachelet, 54, 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. 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.
The former defence minister will become the fourth consecutive president from the centre-left coalition known as the Concertacion, which has governed Chile since the end of military rule in 1990. A doctor and a single mother, Ms Bachelet was seen as an unusual choice for the presidency in a country considered one of the most socially conservative in South America. Mr Pinera - who polled 25% in December - was given the backing of third-placed candidate, Joaquin Lavin, who received 23% in that vote. However, the billionaire businessman and former senator appears not to have picked up all the right-wing vote previously given to Mr Lavin.
Source: Al Jazeera and BBC