Female, Agnostic and the Next Presidente?

Michelle Bachelet, 54, a socialist, maintains a strong lead in polls for Sunday's election.
Michelle Bachelet, 54, a socialist, maintains a strong lead in polls for Sunday's election. (By Roberto Candia -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 10, 2005

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Everyone in the audience was dressed in dark blue or black. Some wore clerical collars, and most had heavy silver crosses dangling around their necks. But Michelle Bachelet wore an electric pink jacket that sent a clear message: She was a candidate for president, not sainthood.

"I'm agnostic. . . . I believe in the state," Bachelet told several groups of evangelical ministers last week. "I believe the state has an important role in guaranteeing the diversity of men and women in Chile -- their different spiritualities, philosophies and ways of life."

Bachelet, 54, a socialist running in national elections Sunday, has a strong chance of becoming Chile's first female head of state -- and thus the first woman in South America to be elected to the top national office without replacing a deceased or disabled husband.

As a single mother, Bachelet is a symbol of change in a country so culturally conservative that it legalized divorce only last year. As both the child of a military family and a victim of prison and torture under the former military dictatorship, she is also a symbol of healing in a country long divided by ideology, class and competing versions of a tumultuous recent history.

Running against two conservative male candidates, Bachelet has maintained a commanding lead in the polls, even while openly airing personal details that she believes represent Chile's shifting cultural landscape.

Although a substantial number of Chileans remain opposed to divorce, most voters don't seem bothered by the fact that Bachelet readily acknowledges she split up with her husband and bore two children while unmarried. Although the Catholic Church has long been the country's dominant cultural institution, her avowed lack of interest in religion has not hurt her, either. And even though just 36 percent of Chilean women hold jobs -- the lowest percentage in Latin America -- Bachelet has won support with her promise to choose women for at least half of her cabinet posts.

"My candidacy represents a society that is more progressive and modern, that recognizes both men and women do have talents," said Bachelet, who most recently served as defense minister for President Ricardo Lagos. "People want politicians who are more concerned about citizens, who do things more ethically, and in that sense there is an expectation that women could be different in their way of doing politics."

In a poll released Thursday, Bachelet led the field of candidates with 41 percent support. Sebastian Pinera, a former senator who is one of Chile's wealthiest men, was projected to finish second with 22 percent. Joaquin Lavin, a conservative former mayor of Santiago, received 19 percent support, according to the poll, conducted by the Center for Contemporary Reality Studies here.

If none of the candidates receives 50 percent of votes cast on Sunday, a second and decisive round of voting between the top two finishers will be held Jan. 15. Polls project that Bachelet would win handily in a head-to-head matchup against either of her opponents.

Despite their divergent political histories and views, all three candidates have emphasized the same core goals: battling unemployment, improving the social security system, narrowing the divide between rich and poor and improving public health services. Gender hasn't been an overt campaign theme for anyone, but it is a powerful undercurrent that can be felt everywhere on the campaign trail.

Bachelet's campaign ads and promotional materials carry an understated but unmistakable message of reaching out to those usually excluded from Chile's political life. Her slogan is "I'm With You," and the promotional materials that outline her platform include a variety of photographed faces, every one of them a woman's or a child's.

"She's already doing things in a different way, and people have criticized her harshly for it," said Marta Lagos, a Santiago-based pollster and political analyst, who is not related to the current president. "She has a daughter, and in September they took a few days off and went to the beach in the middle of the campaign. It's unthinkable for any politician to say, 'I'm with my family, and this is my time -- no one else's.' But that's what she has said."

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