Chile women break political mold

In one of Latin America's most conservative countries, the two front-runners in next year's presidential election are women.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

First it happened in Argentina. Then in Guyana, and then again in Panama: Presidential wives, following the death of their husbands, succeeded them in the country's highest office. In Nicaragua, it was the wife of a murdered high-level political activist who rose to the top spot.

So far, riding the posthumous coattails of powerful husbands has been the only path to the presidency for women in Latin America.

Even now, two of the most talked-about Latin American women are first ladies: Marta Sahagun Fox in Mexico (married to President Vicente Fox) and Sen. Cristina Fernández in Argentina (wife of President Néstor Kirchner). Both may make presidential bids. It's a lot like north of the border in the United States, where a White House run could be in the future of Sen. Hillary Clinton, wife of the former president.

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But here in male-dominated Chile - where only 36 percent of women work and there are no more women in Congress than there were three decades ago - the two front-runners in next year's presidential election, both women, are trying to break that pattern: Neither is wedded to el presidente. This is no stuffy old Latin country, say political insiders here.

"[Chile] might seem very conservative," says Clarissa Hardy, director of Foundation Chile 21, a think tank, "but if you scratch under the surface, you will see that we have been changing over the last 15 years, and things are very different than they look."

Former Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet, a virtual unknown before 2000, who once ran for a municipal council seat and got 2 percent of the vote, officially announced her intention to run for president of Chile last month. She is favored to win both her coalition party's nomination and the general election a year from now.

Nipping at her high heels is Soledad Alvear, the hard-working, tightly wound former foreign minster, who belongs to Ms. Bachelet's coalition - the center-left Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, which has governed Chile for the past 15 years. She is less popular but might yet snag the nomination.

Either one, according to polls, would trounce the right-wing candidate, Santiago mayor Joaquín Lavín, if the election were held today. The latest numbers from Foundation Futuro show Bachelet winning 59 percent to 33 percent when pitted against Mr. Lavín; Ms. Alvear would win 50 percent to 36 percent.

"During the 17 years of [Gen. Augusto] Pinochet's dictatorship [1973-90], typical South American machista tendencies were magnified, and advances for women were frozen," says Ricardo Méndez, a pollster and commentator here. "But since then, there has been a pendulum effect, and people's attitudes are changing rapidly to make up for lost time. Women candidates are the latest manifestation of this process."

Tortured under Pinochet

Spontaneous, engaging, funny, a bit frumpy, and the mother of three children, all with different fathers, Bachelet is far from your establishment politician. The daughter of an Air Force general who was tortured and killed for opposing the 1973 coup - and who herself recently revealed she had spent 10 days imprisoned and tortured in Villa Grimaldi, the notorious Pinochet-era prison camp - Bachelet is considered a soothing and uniting force in the country.

A member of President Ricardo Lagos's socialist party, she was brought into government four years ago by his quota system, which required five female ministers in the cabinet. A medical doctor, Bachelet served first as health minister, later moving to the defense ministry. During her two years as defense minister (she and Alvear both resigned in late September to start their presidential runs), Bachelet deftly succeeded in rebuilding bridges between the civilian government and the military that had been shattered during Pinochet's years. In the process, she picked up a loyal following.

So far, Bachelet has not only secured the support of her own party but received the unanimous support of the Party for Democracy (PPD). Sergio Bitar, education minister and PPD leader, dropped out of the race several weeks ago, saying: "It's clear that in these first five years of the 21st century, the balance has tipped in favor of women.... The citizens are demanding a female candidate."

The Radical Social Democratic Party is also expected to endorse Bachelet. But the largest and most powerful party in the Concertación coalition - the Christian Democratic party (DC), of which Alvear is a member - has not decided yet.

Well-respected and carefully scripted, Alvear has more political experience than Bachelet. She has held cabinet posts in the three different administrations. She created the Department of Women, was a highly acclaimed justice minister, and most recently served as foreign minister.

These two Chilean powerhouses would break the precedent set by Isabel Peron in Argentina (1974-76); Panama's Mireya Moscoso (1999-2004); and Guyana's Janet Jagan (1997-1999), all presidential widows. Nicaragua's Violetta Chamorro (1990-1996) also followed her husband into politics, though he was never president.

Some skeptics argue that it just won't happen - the DC will choose to run a male candidate, or right-wing Lavín will win. "At the end of the day, a woman won't be elected," says pollster Marta Lagos. "People tell me: 'The country is changing.' And I say, 'It's changing, but not that much.' We are such a traditional society that when we see small change we call it phenomenal."

A Bachelet-Alvear ticket?

Others disagree. "Chilean women are ready to support other women, as are Chilean men," says Lucia Santa Cruz, director of the Political Economy Institute of Adolfo Ibáñez University, and a well-known conservative.

And "when" Chile elects its first female leader, Ms. Hardy predicts, "it will be contagious," with more women candidates surfacing across the continent. So how about a Bachelet-Alvear ticket? She laughs. "We don't have a vice-presidential role. Thank God," she says. "We have come a long way, but that would really be a tough sell."

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