Socialist Michelle Bachelet becomes Chile's first female president

The left leaned candidate obtained a solid lead over conservative tycoon Sebastian Pinera

No more mystery. Following Latin America's leftward tilt, left leaned socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet was Sunday elected as the first female president in the history of Chile. Mrs. Bachelet, an atheist political prisoner during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and later defense minister for incumbent Ricardo Lagos's center-left government, defeated conservative tycoon Sebastian Pinera in the runoff of another exciting Chilean presidential race.Michelle Bachelet

Bachelet's victory will extend the rule of the Concertacion, the center left coalition formed by Socialists, Christian Democrats, Radicals and other smaller parties, which has governed Chile since the end of Pinochet's 1973-90 rule. With 97.52 percent of some 8 million votes counted, Bachelet received 53.51 percent to 46.48 percent for Sebastian Pinera, according to official returns announced by the government.

As usual in the past runoff, when Ricardo Lagos was elected president by defeating far-right leader Joaquin Lavin, the votes of the Communists and the Humanists were the key for the Socialist victory. In the first round, Communists obtained 5.5 percent of the vote to later ask their followers to support Bachelet.

Pinera quickly acknowledged Bachelet's victory as made calls for a national unity to fight poverty and maintain the South American country's good economical performance.

Both Bachelet and Pinera, a Harvard-educated economist who pioneered the credit-card business in Chile, called Sunday's election "a great day" as they voted at separate schools in the same upper-class neighborhood in the capital, Santiago. Despite their different political backgrounds and ideologies, both candidates outlined similar basic goals, promising to continue the two-decade-old free-market policies that have made Chile's economy one of the most stable in South America.

During the campaign, Bachelet vowed to reform the pensions fund system, which has left many Chileans without an adequate social coverage after retiring. She has also promised to back policies oriented to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor that has made of Chile one of the most unequal countries in the world.

To secure the votes of the moderate parties that form the Concertacion, Bachelet laid on the successful Lago's rule. According to official stats, under Lagos and his predecessor, Eduardo Frei, Chile reduced poverty from 40 percent to 18.5 percent, as increased per capita income from $7.000 to $16.000.

However, Lagos, who balanced his socialist background with market-oriented economics to win an approval rating above 70 percent, was constitutionally barred from seeking immediate re-election. As he voted, his backers chanted "2010," referring to the next election.

Bachelet, 54, also said she would fight to lower the 9 percent unemployment rate, to improve public health, housing and education and to curb rising urban crime. Meanwhile, Lagos seeks to reform the electoral system in order to allow political minorities as the Communist and the Humanist parties to obtain seats in the Congress.

“I love democracy, that's why I am happy”

Soon after the first official returns were aired, Bachelet supporters began filling the streets of Santiago, the fast growing Capital, to cheer the first female president of Chile. “I love democracy, that's why I am happy”, celebrates Marcela, a 35 lawyer from Central Santiago who cannot forget her relatives harassed by Pinochet's dictatorship. She, as many Chileans links the Concertacion with democracy and “the right” – as conservatives are known here - with tyranny.

Pinochet and his ostracism

As for Gen. Pinochet, the man who dominated Chilean political life for a generation, he was not a factor in the campaign. His spokesman, retired Gen. Guillermo Garin, said the former leader paid little attention to it. At 90, Pinochet is ailing and was only recently freed from house arrest. He faces charges of human rights abuses and corruption stemming from his 17-year rule.

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Author`s name Olga Savka