Chileans prepare to welcome first female president

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In what's seen as a cultural breakthrough for the most conservative country in Latin America, a female Socialist - promising to maintain the country's free-market policies - is poised to become the next president of Chile.

"We're making history," saidMercedes Inostroza, on her way out of a Santiago polling station. "I'm so happy to be electing our first female president. She'll represent us, women."

A pediatrician turned politician, Michelle Bachelet is an atheist single mother with three children by two different partners - which makes her an odd choice in a macho and profoundly Catholic country.

She won the first round of voting on 11 December with 46 per cent, but was forced into a runoff because she failed to win an outright majority. Sebastian Piñera, candidate for the rightest alliance, was second with 25 per cent.

Her appointment as the country's first female defence minister, in 2002, was also unusual, as she is a former political exile and the daughter of an Air Force general who was tortured and died after opposing General Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup d'etat. But she was embraced by the Armed Forces, and is seen as having shone in that portfolio.

"Her leadership style is more emotional, informal and participatory," said supporter Paulette L'Huissier. "That's different for Chile, which is very macho. What's happening here is super important, culturally."

In a country where only one-third of women work, abortion is illegal, and divorce has only been legal for a year, Ms Bachelet appealed to women voters, promising more services for domestic abuse victims, free child care for poor working mothers, and a Cabinet with gender parity.

Still, her victory can't be attributed to the female vote, which tends to be more conservative in Chile.

"I didn't give her my vote," said Isabela Soto. "Being a woman might seem helpful; but she'll have to deal with businessmen and with other countries, many of which aren't used to having women in political power, so it can also be a disadvantage."

Ms Bachelet will be the fourth president from the ruling left-wing coalition, La Concertacion, which has governed since Chile's return to democracy in 1990. "[She] represents change with continuity," says David Altman, a political science professor with the Catholic University of Chile. "She represents the continuity of the social and economic policies of the Concertacion but [also] represents a huge change in cultural terms, as a separated, secular female."

Ms Bachelet promised to follow in the footsteps of outgoing President Ricardo Lagos, whose 66 per cent approval rating is among the highest in the region. Ricardo Lagos Weber said his father had made progress, but Ms Bachelet focused on what remains to be done in her campaign: "Inequality is a serious problem in Chile, and there is a sense that we have a debt to society there," he said.

The final vote count dividing Bachelet and Piñera will be slim, likely similar to the run-off election in January 2000, in which President Lagos squeaked in by just 180,000 votes - a margin of only 51.3 per cent versus his opponent Joaquin Lavin's 48.7 per cent.