Just a few months ago, Socialist candidate Ricardo Lagos was a shoo-in to be Chile's next president.
But as Chileans prepare to cast their ballots in Sunday's runoff election, polls show that Mr. Lagos and right-wing populist Joaqun Lavn are dead even.
Some analysts cite high unemployment. Others credit the Pinochet factor. And some say the former mayor of a Santiago suburb is simply a better showman. But increasingly, experts say that Mr. Lavn's meteoric rise lies with Chile's 7 million women.
Indeed, as democracy puts down deeper roots in Latin America, political leaders throughout the region are awakening to the importance - sometimes the decisive nature - of the women's vote.
Lavn came within 33,000 votes of former education and public works minister Lagos in the December first round among six candidates. But he actually won among women voters by a comfortable 5 percentage points.
Lavn did a better job of homing in on issues like family well-
being and safe streets that matter most to voters, exemplified by women, who are more focused on personal issues than on grand national themes, say analysts.
Many Chilean observers say Lavn captured female voters because Chilean women are conservative. "That's off the mark," says Teresa Rodrguez Allendes of the National Women's Service, a government agency. "On the contrary, I'd say that because women have become more assertive and critical of the conditions they and their families face, they voted for the candidate who developed best the themes of daily life. And that was Lavn."
Across Latin America, there's a growing effort to court the women's vote, and women are moving into higher-profile posts.
In Mexico, in recent months, women have risen to preside over two of three top political parties. Candidates for July presidential elections are paying special attention to issues they believe matter to the country's increasingly active women voters. And in the capital city, former mayor Cuauhtmoc Crdenas appointed a woman to replace him when he stepped down in September to run for president. A recent survey of job performance shows Mayor Rosario Robles receiving higher marks than did Mr. Crdenas when he was in office.
In Peru, women's participation in representative democracy - on city councils and in the national assembly - is growing following last year's implementation of a quota law on women candidates. The law says party lists for multicandidate elections like town councils must have at least 25 percent female representation.
"Peruvian women are participating more, and they are emphasizing the very practical issues that affect their daily lives like food prices, unemployment, and the problems of women who head up a household," says Beto Adrianzen, chief researcher for the Desco social development organization in Lima.
In Chile, Mr. Lagos has got the message. Following his surprisingly close call with Lavn in December, the heir apparent of the center-left Concertation (which has ruled Chile since the return of democracy in 1990) ordered a change in campaign tactics. He dropped most of his campaign directors and brought in Soledad Alvear, the highly respected (and female) former justice minister.
Out went Lagos's old campaign theme - the high-minded but distant "Growth with Equality" - and in came "A much better Chile," considered a warmer and more one-to-one message.
One thing hasn't changed since the December vote: Neither candidate is talking much about Mr. Pinochet. Both candidates prefer not to raise Pinochet, although for separate reasons, says Christian Parker Gumucio, a sociologist at the University of Chile in Santiago. Lavn prefers to let his pro-Pinochet past sleep, and Lagos knows that any emphasis on human rights issues would place him farther to the left in voters eyes.
Lagos's loss of the nonideological center's vote was his chief error in December, according to some analysts. In the first round "Lagos presented himself as the socialist candidate, which allowed Lavn to be the candidate of the center without losing the voters on the right," says Rosendo Fraga, an analyst in Buenos Aires of Southern Cone affairs.
"Add to that Lagos's association with the traditional image - a little too lordly - of the Chilean leadership, while Lavn is a younger and more dynamic candidate with closer contact with the people."
That personal touch is part of what draws women voters to Lavn, Mr. Parker says. While women's issues specialist Ms. Rodrguez says it is Chilean women's greater involvement and lack of fear of change that drew them to Lavn, Parker says Chilean women are more conservative - just as Chilean society in general is considered more conservative than others around it.
The issues Lavn emphasizes are designed to capture the women's vote, he adds. "Family themes, public safety, drugs, all are issues that play well with with ... female heads of households."
Religion was also played to Lavn's advantage among some Christian - Roman Catholic and evangelical - women, Parker says. Lagos describes himself as an agnostic with great respect for religious leaders. But some forces in the Lavn camp - closely allied to the Catholic Church - have labeled Lagos an atheist.
Peruvian analyst Mr. Adrianzen says he took note of the "religious issue" during a recent visit to Chile. "That would never play with Peruvian women," he says. While in Chile women are drawn to Lavn's "authoritarian" image, especially in relation to crime, in Peru things are different.
A recent poll showed women don't support President Alberto Fujimori in his bid for a third term nearly as strongly as men do. "Men appear to like Fujimori's authoritarian image, but in Peru that's just what turns women off," says Adrianzen.
With Chile's race so close and heated, no one is confident about the outcome. But Rodrguez says Lagos's shift in his campaign and the high profile he's given popular former minister Ms. Alvear might be enough to swing the women's vote back in his favor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society