Chile poised to elect woman president

Socialist Michelle Bachelet placed first in Chilean presidential elections yesterday but will face a runoff against a right-wing businessman who is one of Chile’s richest men.

Socialist Michelle Bachelet placed first in Chilean presidential elections yesterday but will face a runoff against a right-wing businessman who is one of Chile’s richest men.

Bachelet, who once was imprisoned by Chile’s military dictatorship and went on to serve as defence minister, won 45.8% of the vote with 96% of ballots counted. But she fell short of the 50% majority that would have made her the country’s first female president.

A businessman and economist, Pinera was a distant second with 25.4% of the vote.

Pinera’s fellow-conservative rival, Joaquin Lavin, conceded after winning 23.2% of votes counted. Chileans go to the polls again on January 15.

Bachelet, who leads a centre-left, pro-government coalition, invited her supporters “to work so that in January we can win.”

“Our results could have been better today, but perhaps our message did not get through to voters,” she said. ”But that’s a good reason for us to work harder.”

Lavin quickly set aside a bitter campaign rivalry with Pinera.

“This is the time for unity,” said Lavin, endorsing Pinera in a speech at his election headquarters.

“Between the two of us, Sebastian, we had more votes than Bachelet and we have a clear chance to win the presidency,” he said before finding Pinera at a downtown hotel to personally offer his support. The two embraced amid applause from hundreds of supporters.

The centre-left, pro-government coalition also posted solid gains in elections to replace half the Senate and the full lower house of Congress. While no final figures were available, President Ricardo Lagos said his coalition won a majority in both houses.

He said the election was a triumph for his coalition, in spite of the runoff.

Pinera insisted the runoff was a step toward victory for the opposition.

“Today we have taken a first step. On January 15th we will take the second step to start changing our country’s history,” Pinera said.

A top aide for Bachelet, Jaime Mulet, downplayed concerns over the two right-wing candidates winning more combined votes.

“Their votes cannot be added. You don’t add apples and pears,” Mulet said.

A fourth candidate, Tomas Hirsch, backed by a coalition that includes the Communist Party, had 5.1% of votes counted. Many of his supporters were expected to turn to Bachelet in the runoff, even if Hirsch does not immediately support her.

The three main candidates all support the free market policies that have built one of the most prosperous economies in Latin America.

Turnout was heavy for the fourth presidential election since Chile restored democracy after the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Voting is mandatory, but fines are rarely imposed on those who fail to cast ballots.

The election showed that Chileans have put the legacy of Gen. Pinochet behind them. The 90-year-old former dictator played no role in the campaign. He wasn’t even able to cast a vote Sunday, as he remained under house arrest, facing human rights and corruption charges.

If elected, Bachelet would be the fourth woman to win a direct popular election as president in the Americas after Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro, Panama’s Mireya Moscoso and Guyana’s Janet Jagan. She would be the first of those who did not rise to prominence because of her husband.

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