Michelle Bachelet loses her popularity in Chile as she marks first year of presidency

President Michelle Bachelet is facing a slide in public confidence on her anniversary Sunday as Chile's first female leader, while insisting that Chile will be in better shape by the end of her four-year term.

Since being sworn in on Mar. 11, 2006, her government has faced a dragging corruption scandal, a massive uprising by high school students and a slowdown in economic growth. More recently, Bachelet has seen the Chilean capital erupt in anger and violent protests over problems with a new public transportation system in Santiago.

The result has been a steep drop in Bachelet's popularity, which according to the most recent opinion polls remains below 50 percent, down from 65 percent when she took office.

Opposition Sen. Pablo Longueira called it the worse opening year among the four center-left governments that have ruled Chile since 1990, the year dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet stepped down from his 17-year-old regime. Pinochet died last December.

But the president remains upbeat. "It's been an intense year, with both good and complicated moments, and we have always faced the problems," Bachelet told the Santiago daily La Segunda Friday. But by the end of her four-year term, she added, "Chile will be a better country."

In one area Bachelet has gained overwhelming approval: the promotion of women's rights, including a law that gives them the legal right to breast feed their children at workplace. She has made inroads against domestic violence, and there is parity between men and women in the distribution of top government posts, including Cabinet jobs.

She also made gains on social programs, including ensuring free attention at public hospitals for all citizens older than 60 who are affiliated with the state insurance system.

But her marks in other areas are poorer.

The economy grew by 4.2 percent in 2006 - the lowest rate in four years - and Bachelet calls that result incompatible with her goal of having a "just and more humane country."

Meanwhile, the government has been praised for its fiscal discipline and inflation remains firmly under control at around 3 percent, the AP said.

A corruption scandal broke at the sports development agency, with funds allocated to projects that never materialized. Although the scandal has not been directly linked to Bachelet, it has tarnished the image of her four-party center-left coalition.

In recent weeks, cracks have appeared in that coalition, which coalesced in the fight against Pinochet, prompting calls for Bachelet shore up her supporting alliances.

"The government has to decide whether it will act or just watch our internal problems," said Socialist Sen. Alejandro Navarro, an avowed Bachelet supporters.

The opposition persistently cites a lack of leadership by the president.

"This is a government off course, without a political leadership," said opposition Sen. Hernan Larrain, of the Independent Democratic Union party.

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