Michelle Bachelet, a socialist who was jailed and went into exile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, was elected the first female president of this South American nation Sunday in a vote that underscored the region’s leftward drift.
The 54-year-old physician and single mother, who served as health and defense minister in the administration of outgoing President Ricardo Lagos, became the first elected female chief executive in Latin America whose rise to power was not linked to a powerful husband.
“Who would have said -- five, 10, 15 years ago -- that Chile would elect a woman president?” Bachelet asked a boisterous crowd of thousands of supporters in front of her hotel in downtown Santiago, the capital. “We have shown a country can be prosperous without losing its soul.”
Her remarks highlighted the changes that have overtaken this nation of 16 million people, considered among the most socially and economically conservative countries in Latin America.
“We are a new Chile,” said Lagos, who remains extremely popular but could not seek reelection under Chilean law.
“We commend the people of Chile for their strong commitment to democracy, as we have seen yet again with today’s election,” White House spokesman David Almacy said. “We congratulate President-elect Michelle Bachelet on her selection as the next president of Chile. We have an excellent long-standing relationship with Chile and look forward to working with the new president and her team.”
Bachelet, who will be sworn in for her four-year term on March 11, was the standard-bearer for the center-left coalition that has held power since Pinochet stepped down in 1990. She won nearly 54% of the vote, based on a tally from more than 97% of polling stations, the government Electoral Service said.
Her opponent, Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire moderate representing the center-right opposition, garnered 46.4%. The two were forced into a runoff when neither won a majority in December’s balloting.
Pinera, owner of Chile’s LAN Airlines, conceded defeat and congratulated Bachelet a little more than an hour after the first official results were released. Bachelet had been favored to win, although the tight race demonstrated that divisions in Chilean society remain 16 years after the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, which followed the violent overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973.
The election of Bachelet and the defeat of her conservative opponent is the latest in a series of votes that have shifted the region’s politics. But Bachelet’s coalition differs markedly from leftist administrations in the rest of South America. Chile staunchly supports market-based trade policies, and its status as a major U.S. ally is not expected to change, analysts say.
By contrast, Evo Morales is scheduled to assume power in Bolivia next Sunday, becoming the first full-blooded Indian president in South America. He has pledged to be a “nightmare” for the United States, and his political kinship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro troubles policymakers in Washington.
Leftist leaders of varying styles also run Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. The region’s left-leaning governments led the defeat in November of the Bush administration’s plan for a regional free-trade zone.
A nation of conservative trade and business policies, Chile joined Mexico, a U.S. partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement, in supporting the hemispheric proposal, known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Whereas Morales has pledged to scrap such policies as harmful to his underdeveloped country, Chile has tended to favor fine-tuning its own economic system.
Domestically, Bachelet is expected to continue Lagos’ pro-business polices, which have helped make this narrow nation wedged between the Pacific and the Andes an economic giant. She nonetheless faces tough decisions on unemployment, rising crime and an unsteady pension system.
“Democracy has helped our country, and Michelle Bachelet is a working mother who understands how many people still struggle,” said Luis Leyva, a 50-year-old cook and father of four. Leyva cast his vote at the National Stadium, infamous as a holding cell and torture chamber in the dictatorship’s early days.
Bachelet’s personal story of political activism, painful exile and triumphant return captivated many.
“We all share the history of this woman,” said Eduardo Suazo, a 42-year-old survivor of torture during Pinochet’s rule. “Pinochet is in jail, and Michelle Bachelet is going to be president. Can you imagine that?”
The former dictator, who recently marked his 90th birthday, is under house arrest, facing charges relating to corruption and human rights abuses.
As official results began to be released shortly after 6 p.m., ecstatic supporters of the president-elect turned Santiago into a block party.
Bachelet will take office as the fifth female president in Latin America -- but under circumstances very different from those of the others.
Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua, Janet Jagan in Guyana and Mireya Moscoso in Panama derived influence from their deceased husbands’ positions. Maria Estela Isabel Peron served a disastrous stint as chief executive after the death of her husband, Argentine President Juan Peron, in 1974.
Bachelet, a mother of three long separated from her husband, will become Chile’s fourth consecutive president from the center-left coalition, known as the Concertacion, which was formed in opposition to Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
Her father, an Air Force general sympathetic to Allende’s democratically elected leftist government, was arrested and tortured during the Pinochet-led coup in September 1973. He died in custody. She and her mother were subsequently arrested.
Bachelet has played down the suffering she endured, saying it was her mother who truly suffered. Mother and daughter first left for Australia, then migrated to East Germany, where they were active in the Chilean opposition movement in exile.
Upon their return in 1979, Bachelet took up her pediatric medical practice while continuing her work in socialist circles. She was involved in Lagos’ presidential campaign and served in his Cabinet as secretary of health and defense minister -- the latter a first for a woman in Latin America.
Andres D’Alessandro in The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.