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Socialist Michelle Bachelet won Chile's presidential election on Sunday, becoming the Andean nation's first woman leader while further consolidating Latin America's move to the left.
Bachelet, a pediatrician and former political prisoner, handily beat her conservative challenger, multimillionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera. With 97.5 percent of some 7.2 million votes counted, Bachelet had 53.4 percent of the vote to Pinera's 46.5 percent, official results showed.
Bachelet's center-left coalition has governed Chile since the end of the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinchet, and incumbent president Ricardo Lagos in a speech to the nation urged the coalition to remain united behind the president-elect.
She will join other leftist leaders in the region including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and newly elected Evo Morales of Bolivia, but indicated she will not bring about radical change to the South American country of 16 million.
"We will continue to walk the same road," she said in her victory speech on Sunday, making it clear she intends to maintain the coalition's free-market economic polices that have turned Chile's economy into one of the region's strongest.
Lagos named Bachelet health minister in 2000 and two years later made her defense minister, a position in which she won praise for helping heal divisions between civilians and military left over from the dictatorship.
Bachelet, 54, is only the third woman to be directly elected president of a Latin American country, following Violeta Chamorro, who governed Nicaragua from 1990 to 1997, and Mireya Moscoso, president of Panama from 1999 to 2004.
However, Bachelet, unlike Chamorro and Moscoso, did not follow a politically prominent husband into power.
"Who would have said, 10, 15 years ago, that a woman would be elected president," Bachelet, a single mother of three, said before thousands of cheering supporters.
Harvard-trained economist Pinera conceded defeat, calling Bachelet "president elect" in an emotional speech to supporters.
"I congratulate Michelle Bachelet for her victory," he said. "I also wish Michelle the greatest possible success."
As thousands celebrated in the streets across the country, Lagos said "it will be an honor for me to deliver the presidential sash to a Chilean woman" on March 11.
In a speech to the nation after congratulating Bachelet on the phone, Lagos called her victory "historic ... We now have a new Chile, we have for the first time in our history a woman president."
A 22-year-old medical student at the time of Pinochet's coup, Bachelet was arrested along with her mother and later forced into five years of exile, first in Australia, then in communist East Germany.
Bachelet on Sunday recalled her imprisonment and torture under Pinochet, saying that "violence entered my life and destroyed what I loved."
She paid tribute to her father, Air Force Gen. Alberto Bachelet, who opposed Pinochet and died in prison of heart attack triggered by torture, according to Bachelet.
The president-elect repeated her promises to improve public education, health and pensions for the elderly.
"My commitment is that by the end of my government in 2010 we will have consolidated a system of social protection that will give Chileans and their families the tranquility that they will have a decent job," she said.
She follows into power Lagos, who deftly balanced his socialist ideology with market-oriented economics and enjoys an approval rate above 70 percent. Lagos is constitutionally prohibited from seeking immediate re-election.
Lagos and Bachelet belong to the same Socialist Party as Salvador Allende, whose leftist policies prompted Pinochet's bloody coup. But the party allied with other major left-center parties in 1990 to oust the right wing, and their coalition has held while leading Chile into a free-trade pact with the United States, cutting inflation and fostering growth of about 6 percent a year.
Venezuela's Chavez said on Sunday he admired Bachelet. "I am a very good friend of Mrs. Bachelet, she is a hero."
Pinochet, who dominated Chilean political life for a generation, was not a factor in the campaign, and his spokesman, retired Gen. Guillermo Garin, said he paid little attention to it. At 90, Pinochet is ailing and was only recently freed from house arrest. He faces charges of human rights abuses and corruption stemming from his 17-year rule.
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