Jonathan Franklin

Victim of Pinochet era asks Chilean voters to make history.

"I AM a woman, a socialist, separated and agnostic - all the sins together," said Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet with a laugh. Then, asked about her favourite food, she beamed with her trademark smile: "Ahhh! That is my problem, I like everything, seafood, pastas, beans..."

Whether joking about being a political outsider or being overweight, this 54-year-old mother of three has become the darling of Chilean politics. Her perceived humour and honesty have catapulted her to the top of the ratings and she is a clear favourite to win Sunday's presidential elections.

A poll released on Thursday shows Ms. Bachelet with a 53 per cent share of the vote - a five-point lead over her opponent, billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera.

If elected Ms. Bachelet, a paediatrician who was tortured and lost her father under the Pinochet regime, will become the first woman elected President of a South American nation.

"She is going to take the reins of this country as if it were a big house. She is going to manage us well," said Juan Angel Gaete, a real estate broker in Santiago who said only a woman was capable of solving Chile's problems. "Look at us men, we do one thing at a time, while the mom is cooking, talking on the phone, feeding the children and listening to the radio!"

For a single mother, with little money and no famous last name, Ms. Bachelet's rise to power has been remarkable. Chilean politics are as traditional as the rest of this conservative Catholic nation. Never before has a woman politician been considered a serious candidate.

At first sight Ms. Bachelet, a fluent English speaker who has both lived and worked in the United States, looks like a friendly schoolteacher. She often drives her own car, uses no bodyguards, and refuses to attack her political opponents. This non-confrontational style has been criticised as superficial, yet Chileans consistently rank her as the most honest and capable politician in the nation.

This week Segolene Royal, the French socialist politician, flew to Chile to support her campaign. For Thursday's campaign finale Spanish singers including Miguel Bose were sponsoring a free concert for an estimated 100,000 Bachelet supporters in downtown Santiago.

A sense of spontaneity and distance from traditional politics has provided Ms. Bachelet with an extremely loyal base of supporters. "I lived the dictatorship and have very bad memories of Pinochet, I am afraid of the rightwing parties," said Ricardo Yanez, 46, a school teacher. "With Bachelet, I share her values."

While left-wing governments across the continent - notably Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and incoming Bolivian President Evo Morales - are questioning the free market model, Ms. Bachelet is expected to maintain Chile's wide open economy.

Ricardo Lagos, the current charismatic leader, has presided over an economic boom that has seen the economy growing at 5 per cent and exports doubling in less than three years. It has made Chile a model of stability in the otherwise tumultuous region.

In addition to the economic success, Mr. Lagos has showcased Chilean leadership, particularly in his refusal to bow to pressure from George Bush to support the war in Iraq.

A member of the socialist party, Ms. Bachelet has focussed her campaign promises on pre-school education, the rights of working mothers, and enforcing Chile's lax labour laws.

"Everywhere I go, a construction site, the supermarket - it is the same, workers approaching me and asking about their rights! About not being paid overtime or being fired without warning," said Ms. Bachelet in an interview. "In my government, we are going to crack down on these abuses."

The rise of Ms. Bachelet comes as the former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, disappears from the political stage. Mr. Pinochet, 90, is increasingly seen by Chileans as a criminal and fraud. With numerous arrest orders and tax investigations, he is politically and socially isolated. Ms. Bachelet has refused to answer reporters asking if, as President, she would allow a state funeral for Mr. Pinochet.

As a life-long opponent of Mr. Pinochet, Ms. Bachelet knows first hand the torture techniques practised by DINA, the military intelligence agency that organised the murder of some 3,000 Chileans during the 1973-1990 military rule. In January 1975, kidnapped by a squad of soldiers, she was beaten and tortured for weeks. Her mother was locked underground without food or water for five days. The military government suspected that Ms. Bachelet worked as a courier in clandestine communications networks in Santiago, ferrying messages among resistance groups. Her father and boyfriend were both tortured to death.

Mother and daughter were exiled together first to Australia, then East Germany, where Ms. Bachelet received her medical degree and organised international resistance to the Pinochet regime. She returned to Chile in the late 1970s and worked in a health clinic, where she specialised in children traumatised by the torture and terror of military rule. When Mr. Lagos took power in 2000 he named Ms. Bachelet as his Health Minister.

In 2002 Mr. Lagos made Ms. Bachelet Minister of Defence, the first time in the history of South America that a woman held the post. It was a signal to the conservative Chilean military that the Pinochet era was over.

But her critics say she lacks leadership qualities. "Michelle is a valiant woman, who has had a hard life," said Mr. Pinera during a debate. "She is capable, but to be President you need much more than being a professional or a business leader. You need tenacity and leadership."

Ms. Bachelet brushes such criticism aside. In a recent debate she said: "Together we recovered democracy in Chile. Now I invite you to be part of another historic moment by electing Chile's first woman President. Let's make history."

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006