Chile Elects First Female President

President-elect Michelle Bachelet, who was imprisoned and tortured under the right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, was praised Monday as a symbol of reconciliation who can help Chile come to terms with its traumatic political past.

Bachelet, the first woman to be elected president in the conservative Catholic country, won 53 percent of the vote in Sunday's runoff, compared to 46 percent for right-leaning businessman Sebastian Pinera, according to official results.

Bachelet, a socialist doctor and a single mother, promised tolerance in her victory speech late Sunday.

"Because I was the victim of hatred, I have dedicated my life to reverse that hatred and turn it into understanding, tolerance and — why not say it — into love," said Bachelet, whose father, an air force officer who opposed Pinochet, died in prison.

Alejandro Goic, president of Chile's Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops, welcomed her words.

"She had the capacity for reconciliation in spite of the pains she had to suffer," Goic said Monday after meeting Bachelet along with other clergy.

Santiago Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuris praised her for "overcoming hatred," adding, "The success of Mrs. Bachelet would be the success of the entire country."

Her victory extended the rule of the market-friendly, center-left coalition that has governed since the end Pinochet's 1973-90 rule.

"Who would have said, 10, 15 years ago — that a woman would be elected president!" Bachelet told thousands of supporters.

The elections underlined Latin America's tilt toward the left, though Bachelet has promised to maintain the free-market policies that have made Chile's economy one of the strongest in the region.

The 54-year-old pediatrician, who is separated from her husband, had expected resistance from Chile's conservative military establishment — and not only because of her family background.

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

A 22-year-old medical student at the time, Bachelet was also arrested, along with her mother. They were blindfolded, beaten and denied food for five days while their cellmates were raped — an ordeal she doesn't want to talk about except to say she and her mother were "physically mistreated." She insists she harbors no rancor because she has "a political understanding of why those things happened."

They were later forced into five years in exile, first in Australia, then communist East Germany, where Bachelet married a fellow Chilean exile. They later separated, and she had a third child from a new relationship.

Back in Chile, Bachelet worked underground with other leftist exiles, quietly advancing in the Socialist Party. She became a well-known figure in the center-left coalition that has ruled since 1990.

Current President Ricardo Lagos, who was constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, made her his health minister, then in 2002 named her defense minister. She won praise for helping heal divisions between civilians and military left over from the dictatorship.

Bachelet — who was at the top of her class in a Chilean course on military studies — became a popular figure among the admirals and generals. The air force presented her with a leather flight jacket with her name stamped on it, and as defense minister she would often respond to an officer's military salute with a smile and a kiss on the cheek.

Lagos and Bachelet belong to the same Socialist Party as Salvador Allende, whose leftist policies prompted Pinochet's bloody coup. But the party allied with other major left-center parties in 1990 to oust the right wing, and their coalition has held while leading Chile into a free-trade pact with the United States, cutting inflation and fostering growth of about 6 percent a year.

In spite of their different political backgrounds and ideologies, both Bachelet and Pinera outlined similar goals. Both said they would fight to lower the 8 percent unemployment rate, improve public health, housing and education services and curb rising urban crime.

They also promised to reform Chile's 25-year-old private social security systems to ensure better pensions for retirees, though neither has given details of how.

Bachelet, the third woman in Latin America to be directly elected president, will be inaugurated March 11, joining the ranks of Latin American leaders including leftists such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and newly elected Evo Morales of Bolivia.

She indicated she would work with all the region's leaders. "Chavez, Morales, they are presidents elected by their peoples. Chile must have relationships with all of them."

The country for the most part accepted Bachelet's candidacy, although her gender prompted questions she didn't like.

"You wouldn't be asking that question if I was a man," she told a Chilean newspaper reporter who asked if she would marry again.

But she did answer: "The truth is that I haven't had the time to even think about that. My next four years will be dedicated to work."