Single mother poised to be Chilean President

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Ms Bachelet is a Socialist and former pediatrician who has served as minister of health and of defence. She was a staggering 21 points ahead before yesterday's presidential election. As polling ended last night, the most likely scenario was that she might fall just short of the simple majority - one vote more than 50 per cent - needed to claim outright victory today.

But, if that is the case, she is considered a shoo-in in a 15 January run-off against the second-placed candidate, certain to be one of the two conservatives, billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera or the former mayor of Santiago, Joaquín Lavín.

Ms Bachelet has taken traditionally macho Chile by storm during her campaign, which ended in tragedy last week when four of her supporters died in a campaign bus crash. She called off her closing rally.

Commenting on traditional Chilean Catholicism and conservatism, she said in a recent interview: "As the old joke goes, I have all the sins together. I am a woman, Socialist, separated and agnostic." Joke or not, it seems to be working.

She had already become South America's first female defence minister in 2002 - putting her in charge of some of the men who may have ordered her torture or caused her father's death - a post she gave up last October to chase the title of president.

At midday on 10 January 1975, Michelle Bachelet, then a 23-year medical student, was having lunch with her archaeologist mother, Angela, in their Santiago flat when the door was battered open by hooded men. General Pinochet's dreaded secret police blindfolded the two women, took them to the Villa Grimaldi detention centre and tortured them for 21 days. Her father had already died in custody after torture.

Ms Bachelet is the candidate of the Concertacion, a coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats which has ruled since democracy replaced the Pinochet regime in 1990. The current Socialist President, Ricardo Lagos, was legally barred from running again. He is leaving with his approval rating at 60 per cent, and with the economy booming.

Ms Bachelet has pledged, if elected, to split her cabinet evenly between men and women, a breakthrough in a country where sexual harassment at work was made illegal only this year. On the issue for which Chile has most often been in the headlines recently - whether or not General Pinochet should be tried for human rights abuses - she has been ambiguous. She has always said she was not an "avenging angel", despite her own torture, her father's death in prison and the permanent "disappearance" of Jamie Lopez, her boyfriend at the time.

The Pinochet saga is less of a legal wrangle and more of a deep social schism among Chileans, an unhealed wound left over from the 17 years of the general's military dictatorship.

With the country still split between those who despise him and those who revere him for his opposition to Communism, Ms Bachelet has said that she wants to be a "bridge" between the two sides.

Family's troubled history

* Alberto Bachelet, Michelle's father, was a general in the air force, who supported the socialist government of Salvador Allende and opposed the coup by General Augusto Pinochet which ended Allende's rule, and life, on 11 September 1973.

General Bachelet, who almost certainly knew that his student daughter was a member of the Socialist Youth, was appointed by Allende the previous year to head a government department. Pinochet did not waste time in exacting retribution. General Bachelet was arrested by army officers on the day of the coup. He was sent to Santiago's Public Prison, where he was tortured daily for almost six months. He died at 50, after suffering a heart attack in his cell on 12 March 1974, one of more than 3,000 victims of Pinochet's early rule, when an estimated 30,000 citizens were arrested and tortured.