Monday, December 12, 2005

Female Socialist Leads Chile's Presidential Race


Monday, December 12, 2005 Page A12

Reuters News Agency LOS ANDES, CHILE -- In Los Andes, a small farming town in central Chile, voters going to the polls yesterday said they are proud a woman was leading the presidential race, but that they cast their votes for ideas, not gender.

Socialist Michelle Bachelet, a candidate for the ruling centre-left coalition that has governed Chile for the past 15 years, led presidential elections, but not by enough votes to avoid a runoff against a right-wing rival in January when she could become the country's first woman president.

With 82 per cent of the votes counted, Ms. Bachelet had 45.8 per cent and opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire from the moderate wing of Chile's conservatives, was second with 25.7 per cent.

Joaquin Lavin, another candidate from Chile's divided conservatives who have been out of power since Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship ended in 1990, ceded the election and said he would back Mr. Pinera in the second round.

"As a woman, a worker and a mom, I feel happy and hopefully Doctor Bachelet will win and show everyone we women are also capable," said Placeria Cuevas, 54, a grape picker in Los Andes, a quiet town at the foot of the mountains about 70 kilometres north of Santiago.

Women are a majority of voters in this conservative Catholic country of 16 million where divorce was not legalized until 2004.

Marta Lagos, head of the MORI polling firm, said a broad majority of the votes for Ms. Bachelet will come from women, adding that that even leftist Chilean men are "machista," referring to the Latin American term for male chauvinism.

She said she would be watching numbers carefully for signs that men were voting for far-left candidate Tomas Hirsch to the detriment of Ms. Bachelet.

A poll earlier this year showed 73 per cent of women aged 21 to 25 supported Ms. Bachelet.

"I'm not voting for Michelle just because she's a woman but also because she fought against the military government to recover democracy in this country," said Vania Alfaro, 34, a bank teller, one of 8,400 women voting in a school in Los Andes's main polling station.

If victorious, Ms. Bachelet would be the fourth elected woman president in Latin America after Nicaragua's Violeta Chamorro, Panama's Mireya Moscoso, and Guyana's Janet Jagan.

A political prisoner in Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship who went on to become defence minister, Ms. Bachelet's strongest opponents are Mr. Pinera, a wealthy entrepreneur, and Mr. Lavin, a former Santiago mayor.

More women registered to vote this year in Chile because there was a strong female candidate, said Juan Ignacio Garcia, director of the government Electoral Service. "There is no doubt they will have an influence. Women are the key to the electoral system," he told El Mercurio newspaper.

A medical doctor, the 54-year-old Ms. Bachelet has not shied away from emphasizing her role as a separated, working mother of three to appeal to female voters.

"She has that feminine touch: intuition, the emotional sensitive, maternal aspect," said Lily Marchant, a nurse who supports Ms. Bachelet's proposed pension reforms.

But her liberal social ideas were a turnoff for preschool teacher Lily Acevedo, who yearned for a conservative leader. "The fact that she's a woman doesn't affect my decision. I don't agree with the left, it's time for a change."

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