Election Could Be Landmark For Chile
Candidate Leading Polls Would Be the Country's First Female President

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 15, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile, Jan. 14 -- When Reya Primus and her husband head out to vote in the presidential election Sunday, she will go to one polling station and he will split off to another, complying with a law that segregates voting by gender.

Then Primus will cast a ballot that she says could begin to bring about the end of such traditions.

"In Chile, from one century to another, men have run everything, and there is a strong presence of discrimination in this culture," said Primus, 61, a housewife and resident of Santiago, the capital. "But things will start to change if Michelle Bachelet wins. At least I hope they will."

Voters will choose between Bachelet, a former defense minister and member of the ruling Socialist Party, and Sebastian Piñera, a former senator and one of the country's wealthiest entrepreneurs. Polls predict a Bachelet victory, which would give Chile, a culturally conservative country, its first female leader, and South America its first woman elected to the top national office who was not the wife of a former president.

The media have paid close attention to the pioneering aspect of Bachelet's campaign, which means that one of Piñera's toughest challenges has been to cast himself as someone who could represent Chile's future -- not just business as usual.

In the final days of the campaign, Piñera emphasized that the governing coalition to which Bachelet belongs has held the presidency for 16 consecutive years, while gaps in the health care and education systems continue to trouble residents. Piñera promised to provide pensions for housewives and to increase the presence of police on the streets.

"We need an alternative, because it would signify the opening of doors and windows so that everything could be ventilated and the country illuminated with sunshine," Piñera, 56, told about 8,000 supporters at a rally in Valparaiso, a seaport in central Chile, as he ended his campaign.

A member of the conservative National Renewal party, Piñera earned a doctorate in economics from Harvard and worked for the World Bank in the 1970s. He is part-owner of Chile's largest airline, largest bank, largest shipping company and largest industrial group. His wealth is estimated at more than $1 billion.

Piñera finished with 26 percent of the votes in the first round of balloting last month, narrowing the field to him and Bachelet, who received 46 percent of the votes. He edged out Joaquin Lavin, who had been the favorite among more conservative voters -- a group that Piñera has since distanced himself from in an effort to woo centrist voters.

During a nationally televised debate this month, Piñera denounced the 1973-1990 rule of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who faces a variety of criminal charges for corruption and widespread human rights abuses. Though Pinochet's popularity among Chileans has sunk in recent years, some conservatives still revere him as a guardian against communism and an economic reformer.

Such comments might have cost Piñera support among the more than 30 percent of Chileans who can be counted on to vote conservative, said Marta Lagos , a pollster who oversaw a public opinion survey last week indicating that Bachelet would finish with 53 percent of the vote to Piñera's 47 percent.

"He has lost many votes in trying to reach out to the center," said Lagos, who is not related to the current president, Ricardo Lagos. "In our poll, 19 percent of those [who responded] said they believe Pinochet was a good government for Chile, and those are the people who will be staying at home this election."

Alexis Lama, a doctor from the city of Concepcion, said that although he had hoped Lavin would represent conservatives such as him, he would support Piñera in hopes that he might serve as a guardian of morality.

"We need to recover our traditional values, and I'm concerned about the government continuing to construct a so-called progressive country where they permit homosexual unions, don't respect life and legalize abortions," said Lama, 57, shopping Saturday at a mall in Santiago with his wife, Luisa.

Bachelet, 54, is a self-proclaimed agnostic in a country where the Catholic Church traditionally has been the most powerful cultural force. She has three children and is separated from her husband.

Her father, an air force general who served under Socialist President Salvador Allende, died in military custody shortly after Pinochet's 1973 coup. Bachelet and her mother were kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by Pinochet's government. She lived in exile in Australia and Europe but returned to Chile in 1979 and worked as a pediatrician.

She served as health minister under Lagos from 2000 to 2002 before being named defense minister. Lagos has thrown his support behind her -- a considerable benefit, given his popularity rating of 75 percent, according to an opinion poll conducted last week by MORI Chile.

Lagos's six years in office have been some of the most prosperous in Chile's history, with spending surpluses and steady growth. Bachelet has pledged to support Lagos's economic reforms promoting free trade and fiscal discipline.

If elected, Bachelet has said, at least half the members in her cabinet would be women. She has promised child care for low-income mothers and reforms of the country's pension system to provide broader coverage at a lower cost.

"We can build a country where no one will be sentenced to live in poverty and where each day we will work toward an even freer society," Bachelet told 200,000 supporters in Santiago at a rally ending her campaign this past week.

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