- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile — A socialist doctor and former political prisoner was elected yesterday as the country’s first female president, with her conservative multimillionaire opponent conceding defeat in a race that reflected Latin America’s increasingly leftward tilt.

The victory of Michelle Bachelet — a political prisoner during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and defense minister in the current administration — extends the rule of the market-friendly center-left coalition that has governed since the end of Gen. Pinochet’s 1973-90 rule.

With 97.5 percent of about 8 million votes counted, Mrs. Bachelet had 53.5 percent of the vote, compared with 46 percent for Sebastian Pinera, who congratulated his opponent on her victory but vowed “to continue to fight for our principles, which do not die today.”

The runoff was necessary after a Dec. 11. election involving four candidates failed to produce a winner with a majority.

Her political success has baffled many Chileans who thought a left-leaning single mother jailed during Gen. Pinochet’s dictatorship stood little chance in this socially conservative country.

President Ricardo Lagos made her his health minister, then in 2002 named her defense minister. She won praise for helping heal divisions between civilians and the military left over from the dictatorship.

Mrs. Bachelet had expected resistance from Chile’s conservative military establishment when appointed defense minister.

“I was a woman, separated, a socialist, an agnostic … all possible sins together,” said Mrs. Bachelet, who, nonetheless, became a popular figure among the admirals and generals.

Mrs. Bachelet’s sex still prompts questions that she does not like.

“You wouldn’t be asking that question if I was a man,” she told a Chilean reporter who asked whether she would remarry.

But she did answer:

“The truth is that I haven’t had the time to even think about that,” she said. “My next four years will be dedicated to work.”

Mrs. Bachelet, 54, will be the third woman directly elected president of a Latin American country, after Violeta Chamorro, who governed Nicaragua from 1990 to 1997, and Mireya Moscoso, president of Panama from 1999 to 2004.

However, Mrs. Bachelet, unlike those two women, did not follow a politically prominent husband into power.

Mrs. Bachelet’s father was an air force general who was arrested and tortured for opposing the 1973 coup that brought Gen. Pinochet to power. Alberto Bachelet died in prison of a heart attack, which Mrs. Bachelet said probably was caused by the torture.

A 22-year-old medical student at the time, Mrs. Bachelet was arrested with her mother and later forced into five years of exile, first in Australia, then in communist East Germany. She married a fellow Chilean exile while in East Germany. They separated when they returned to Chile.

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