Chileans set to elect a woman

Michelle Bachelet leads polls going into Sunday's presidential election.

A crescendo of female voices fills the Diego Portales Convention Center at a recent presidential debate on women's issues. "Michelle" is the rallying cry, as a predominantly female crowd of 3,000 cheers on Chile's sole female contender.

"It's inspiring," says Magdalena Correa, to the wide-eyed approvals of two friends. "We came to support Michelle because we're women, heads of the household, self-employed, and we want there to be a stronger voice for women in Chile."

Heading into this Sunday's presidential election, Michelle Bachelet is leading all polls and appears poised to become Chile's first female president. In a country long considered the most conservative in Latin America, observers say Mrs. Bachelet's popularity, coupled with progressive reforms enacted during her time in government, are signs of a profound cultural change.

"The mere fact that there's a woman candidate has produced a shift in Chile," says Marta Maurás, secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. "It's a change that mirrors a broader process of achieving rights in a mature democracy."

A former medical doctor, Bachelet served briefly as health minister in the cabinet of current president Ricardo Lagos, before becoming Chile's first-ever female defense minister - an unusual appointment, given Chile's male-dominated culture.

It was also a controversial appointment, as her father was an Air Force commander who died while in detention for opposing Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup. Bachelet herself spent 10 days imprisoned in a camp before fleeing with her mother to Australia.

Years after returning to Chile, she entered politics as an unknown, and was brought into the cabinet under Mr. Lagos's quota system, which required five female ministers.

As defense minister, Bachelet spearheaded a policy to incorporate more women in the ranks of the armed forces; and as health minister, she legalized the sale of the morning-after pill by prescription. Also, a number of new laws introduced under the Lagos administration have also been seen as progressive for women: including the divorce law, a law banning sexual harassment in the workplace, and a law making domestic abuse a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail. These reforms have helped Bachelet's campaign, observers say.

If she wins, Bachelet would be the fourth consecutive president from the ruling center-left coalition (La Concertacíon) since Chile's return to democracy in 1990. But analysts say that being a woman gives her campaign the appearance of change without a change of party.

And she has capitalized on her gender, declaring at the women's issues debate: "I'm not neutral. I'm the only one here who knows what it's like to be a woman.... As your candidate, I have a commitment to you, and as President of the Republic, I'm going to fight for women."

Bachelet has made women's rights a focus in her campaign - promising subsidized child care, more services for abused women, and a cabinet with an equal number of male and female ministers.

Her opponents have taken up women's issues, in a bid to undermine her support base. Both right-wing candidates have proposed an unprecedented pension for housewives, which even Bachelet dismisses as unfeasible.

Earlier this year, Bachelet faced the possibility of a leadership race with another woman, then foreign affairs minister, Soledad Alvear. But Bachelet was became the sole candidate for La Concertacíon, after polls showed her victory was almost guaranteed - even among female voters. It was an astonishing shift, say pollsters, given that Chilean women tend to be conservative and historically reticent to supporting women.

Pedro Figueroa, an investigator with the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Chile, says Bachelet's leadership style is more emotional, which according to sociologists, is just what Chileans are looking for.

"Despite having good economic indicators in this country, there is still discontent, insecurity, and problems that previous leaders haven't resolved," explains Mr. Figueroa. "So Bachelet comes along, with her feminine leadership that's more 'maternal,' perhaps. And that's exactly the kind of leadership you need when a country is developing quickly, or modernizing - changes that generate a feeling of insecurity or uprootedness. That's when the type of emotional, maternal leadership a woman can offer becomes subconsciously attractive."

From the beginning, Bachelet has drawn on public perceptions of her warmth, sincerity, and openness. But during her campaign, she's been criticized for being too serious or evasive in debates, contradicting the very personality traits that have made her so popular.

Last week, polls showed her support dropping from a high of 45 percent this August to a record low: 38.5 percent.

But Bachelet says the slip in polls serves as a reminder to be more genuine: "I've tried to be more myself since the first debate, where many people told me I had lost that natural me, that I seemed too rigid."

Still, the polls suggest Bachelet remains far ahead of her two closest challengers on the right. Former Santiago mayor Joaquin Lavin, who lost against President Lagos in 1999, is at 16 percent, while support for billionaire airline tycoon, Sebastian Piñera, has reached a high of 22 percent.

If Bachelet doesn't win more than 50 percent of the vote this Sunday, she'll go to a runoff in January - which all projections suggest she'll win handily.

If she does, she would not only be Chile's first female president, but she would be the first woman ever elected anywhere in Latin America that was not married to a former male leader.

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