Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ELECTIONS-CHILE: Bachelet Makes History, Marks Cultural Shift

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Jan 16 2006 (IPS) - The day after becoming the first woman ever to win a presidential election in South America, Michelle Bachelet shared breakfast with current Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, marking a political transition and cultural shift that has inspired high hopes and expectations.

Bachelet, the candidate for the centre-left coalition that has governed Chile since the end of the Gen. Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, emerged triumphant in Sunday’s presidential runoff vote with a healthy majority over her right-wing opponent, billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera.

“It will be a privilege for me to end my term (on Mar. 11) by handing power over to a woman like Michelle Bachelet,” said Lagos at the end of the breakfast meeting held at the president-elect’s home, where they discussed the transfer of office and the tasks to be taken on by the new administration.

“We talked about how to handle this transition period in the most harmonious way possible,” said Bachelet, indirectly responding to comments made by some local observers regarding potential competition for the spotlight between the president-elect and the outgoing president.

The fourth and final vote count, announced by Deputy Interior Minister Jorge Correa at 03:00 GMT Monday, confirmed the 54-year-old socialist physician’s victory with 53.49 percent of the valid ballots cast, against 46.50 percent for Piñera.

Bachelet’s will be the fourth consecutive administration headed by the Concertación por la Democracia, a centre-left coalition made up by the Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Party for Democracy and the Social Democratic Radical Party.

The first post-dictatorship transition government was led by Social Democrat Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994). He was followed in office by fellow Social Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz Tagle (1994-2000), who was in turn succeeded by Lagos, a moderate Socialist. The Chilean constitution prevents the re-election of presidents to a second term.

With Bachelet’s victory, the Concertación has not only further consolidated its place as the most stable political alliance in Chilean history, but has also made history by giving this country of 15.6 million its first woman president.

“I’m happy, we’re writing a new page in the history of Chile,” 48-year-old Margarita Cancino exclaimed to IPS while dancing on the Alameda, Santiago’s principal avenue, to celebrate Bachelet’s victory.

Street vendors capitalised on the festivities by selling replicas of the blue, white and red Chilean presidential sash, which were snapped up by enthusiastic female supporters from the time Bachelet’s resounding triumph was predicted by the preliminary vote tallies.

“I never would have dreamed that this could happen,” university student Karina Meléndez told IPS outside San Francisco Plaza Hotel on the Alameda, just minutes before the president-elect began her acceptance speech, echoing the same thoughts.

“Who would have thought 20, 10 or even five years ago that Chile would elect a woman as president? It seemed highly unlikely, but it was possible. It is possible, because the citizens of the country wanted it. Because democracy allowed it,” Bachelet declared before a crowd of some 200,000 cheering men and women.

Bachelet is the first woman ever to be elected president by popular vote in South America. Argentina’s María Estela Martínez, better known to the world as Isabel Perón, took over the presidency upon the death of her husband, Juan Domingo Perón, in 1974, and was overthrown by a military coup two years later.

In Bolivia, then Chamber of Deputies Speaker Lidia Gueiler was appointed interim president in November 1979, then was removed from office by a military junta in July 1980.

Only three other women have ever won presidential elections in the Americas, and all rose to power as the wives of well-known figures: Violeta Barrios in Nicaragua, (1990-1997), widow of journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro; Janet Jagan in Guyana (1997-1999), widow of former leader Cheddi Jagan; and Mireya Mosco in Panamá (1999-2004), widow of strongman Arnulfo Arias.

“We are making history, not only because Michelle is a woman, but because she represents a new form of leadership, from the generation that was formed politically under the (Pinochet) dictatorship, and wants to innovate with citizens’ participation,” said Meléndez, a sociology student.

“I am certain that Michelle Bachelet feels a great deal of responsibility, particularly as a woman. This is an enormous cultural leap that we have made, and I am certain that we are going to make a very good government,” said senator-elect and former Lagos foreign minister Soledad Alvear, herself a candidate earlier in the presidential race.

Bachelet, born in 1951 in Santiago, is 12 years younger than Lagos. Her father, Alberto Bachelet, was an air force general who remained loyal to the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende that took power in 1970 and was overthrown by the Sept. 11, 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power.

Her father died in prison in 1974 from a cardiac arrest brought on by the torture he suffered at the hands of his own fellow officers.

Michelle Bachelet and her mother were held as political prisoners in January 1975 by the Pinochet dictatorship. She then fled into exile, arriving first in Australia, then settling down in the former German Democratic Republic.

Her political career began when Lagos designated her as his health minister in March 2000. Then, in January 2002, he appointed her to head up the defence ministry.

In the lead-up to the Dec. 11 general elections, Bachelet quickly emerged as a favourite in the polls, prompting fellow centre-left coalition member and presidential contender Alvear, a Christian Democrat, to withdraw from the race and clear the way for Bachelet’s selection as the Concertación candidate.

While Bachelet took almost 46 percent of the votes in the Dec. 11 elections, she did not capture the absolute majority needed to win the presidency in the first round, leading to the runoff against second-placed Piñera. In the legislative elections held simultaneously, the centre-left coalition handily defeated the opposition right-wing alliance by earning 51.8 percent.

In the second round of voting on Sunday, however, Bachelet not only won a larger percentage of votes than the ruling coalition captured during the legislative elections, but also outdid her opponent by a margin of seven percent, a more substantial defeat than that dealt by Lagos, with 51 percent of the ballots, to right-wing candidate Joaquín Lavín, with 48 percent in the presidential runoff of January 2000.

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