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CHILE: Michelle Bachelet to tackle inequality
published: Tuesday | January 17, 2006


Newly elected Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (left), jokes with Chile's outgoing President Ricardo Lagos after a meeting in her house in Santiago yesterday. Chile elected socialist Bachelet to be its first woman president on Sunday, making her only the second woman elected to head a South American state as Latin America cements a shift to the left. - REUTERS

SANTIAGO, Chile, (Reuters):

Chile president-elect Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist who will be the country's first female leader, vowed yesterday to shrink the gap between rich and poor that persists in the South American nation, despite lower poverty and a thriving economy.

Bachelet, from Chile's ruling centre-left coalition, won 53 per cent of ballots cast in Sunday's election, while opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera took 47 per cent, the government Electoral Service said.

The 54-year-old medical doctor, who was imprisoned and tortured during the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship before living in exile abroad, will be the fourth consecutive president from the centre-left alliance that has run Chile since 1990.

"What is important is that we guarantee decent and dignified work to all Chileans ... what is important is that everybody has the same rights and the same opportunities," Bachelet said at her first press conference as the president elect.

SECULAR VALUES

An agnostic with three children from two relationships, Bachelet benefited from a shift to more secular values in Chile, which has had a reputation historically as one of the region's most socially conservative countries.

Bachelet, who is to assume office in March, is expected to be a pragmatic leftist, following in the footsteps of widely popular President Ricardo Lagos, whose fiscal discipline won over many right-leaning sceptics.

"We have all been pleased with Mrs. President's capacity to approach people and her empathy, how she cares about the poor and those who are marginalised, and how she cares about children's well-being through the well-being of the family," said Francisco Javier Errazuriz, Santiago's archbishop.

A former defence minister, Bachelet is only the second woman elected to head a South American nation after Janet Jagan of Guyana was chosen to succeed her husband as president in 1997 after he died.

Everyone from babies in Bachelet headbands to elderly couples and tattooed young people joined in the street revelry that crowded Santiago's main boulevard on Sunday night.

Political scientist Ricardo Israel said a main challenge for Bachelet will be to bring more women into public office, and to find a place for her social-democratic coalition within the range of leftist governments taking hold in Latin America.

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