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Chileans Elect Their First Woman President
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Socialist Michelle Bachelet was elected Chile's first woman president on Sunday, consolidating the growing strength of the left in Latin America.

Bachelet, from Chile's ruling center-left coalition, took 53.51 percent of the vote while opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera had 46.48 percent, based on a count of 97.52 percent of polling stations, the government Electoral Service said.

"I want to congratulate Michelle Bachelet for her triumph," Pinera, a moderate conservative and one of Chile's wealthiest men, said in a concession speech on live television.

Bachelet, imprisoned and tortured during the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, will be the fourth consecutive president from the center-left alliance formed in the 1980s to oppose the military regime and that has run the country since Pinochet stepped down in 1990.

Supporters filled Santiago's main boulevard as they gathered outside Bachelet's downtown election headquarters after results were read on television by an electoral official.

"We came to celebrate that for the first time in history women have won. We're going to have another point of view (in charge), more sensitive and more in touch with reality," said Paula Chacon, a 35-year-old housewife who took her two children along to join hundreds of people rejoicing and jumping up and down in the street.

Regional shift to the left

Bachelet, a medical doctor and former defense minister, will be only the second woman elected to head a South American nation, and the first who was not the widow of a former president. She will be sworn in on March 11.

A Bachelet victory consolidates a shift to the left in Latin America, where leftists now run Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela, some with politics more extreme than others. A socialist will soon take office in Bolivia and a leftist is favored to win Mexico's July presidential election.

Bachelet is expected to be a pragmatic leftist -- in contrast with more populist leaders at the helm in Argentina and Venezuela -- following in the footsteps of popular outgoing President Ricardo Lagos.

Investors forecast she will continue Lagos' prudent fiscal policies, which have helped turn the copper-producing nation of 16 million people into the region's most stable economy with one of Latin America's lowest rates of poverty.

Though she generally has pledged continuity, Bachelet promises deep reform to Chile's private pension system, which is admired around the world as a model but considered expensive and inadequate at home.

Pinera, a former investment banker and senator who heads a rightist alliance, said the country needed a change after 16 years under the left.

Chileans' biggest concerns are crime and unemployment and on the campaign trail Pinera had pledged to create 1 million jobs and put 12,000 more police on the streets.

But polls showed that most Chileans -- an austere, skeptical people -- found Bachelet more trustworthy than Pinera.

The agnostic woman with three children from two relationships also benefited from a shift to more secular values in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Bachelet also inherited the popularity of Lagos and a cycle of economic prosperity in Chile, a mining giant enjoying record high prices for copper.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies January 16, 2006)

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