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Chileans to choose a leader in historic election

Chileans will vote Jan. 15 in a run-off presidential race between a woman former defense minister who was tortured under the 1973-1990 military regime and an ex-senator who is one of the country's wealthiest people.
Chilean presidential candidate Bachelet speaks to supporters after she finished first in general elections in Santiago
Presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet, second from left, is flanked by her son Sebastian, left, and daughters Francisca, far right, and Sofia, in Santiago on Sunday.Ivan Alvarado / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Chileans will vote Jan. 15 in a run-off presidential race between a woman former defense minister who was tortured under the 1973-1990 military regime and an ex-senator who is one of the country's wealthiest people.

Socialist Michelle Bachelet, from the ruling center-left coalition, took 46 percent of the vote in Sunday's first-round elections, shy of the majority needed to avoid a second round.

Sebastian Pinera, from the more moderate party in Chile's right-wing alliance, came second with 25 percent of the vote.

An unlikely candidate
Bachelet has said her condition as "a woman, a Socialist, separated (and) agnostic," made her an unlikely defense minister when she took that post in 2002 under fellow socialist President Ricardo Lagos.

Many Chileans from the left were enchanted by the turning of the tables, seeing Bachelet in charge of the armed forces 25 years after she was arrested, beaten, blindfolded and deprived of food under the Augusto Pinochet military regime.

After being freed from prison in 1975 she and her mother lived in exile in Australia and Germany and Bachelet became a doctor. Her father, a military general, died in prison where he was also tortured.

Relaxed social mores
Chile's acceptance of a woman who once dated a member of an armed rebel group and who has three children from two relationships, shows how dramatically social mores have relaxed in recent years.

Chile legalized divorce only last year.

Her Socialist Party is part of a coalition that has ruled Chile since 1990, a period in which Chile's poverty rate was cut in half and Chile became the region's star economy. She has pledged to completely overhaul Chile's private pension system, which is admired abroad but at home is considered too expensive and not covering enough people. She has been criticized in the press for not having a concrete enough policies.

The right-wing opposition
Pinera jumped into the presidential campaign in May, dividing the rightist opposition.

He says he represents a more tolerant right-wing compared with the ultra-conservative right that was loyal to Pinochet.

His first steps to building his huge fortune were real estate investments and creating and selling a company that administered credit cards. He founded Chile's first investment bank in the 1980s.

He now owns 27 percent of Chile's $2.3 billion air carrier LAN Airlines, a television station, and stakes in several other companies. He has pledged to sell all his investments if he becomes president.

Chileans, concerned about unemployment and crime, have warmed to his pledges to create 1 million jobs and put 12,000 more police on the streets.

Pinera, who was a senator for eight years during the 1990s, comes from an upper-middle-class family and has a doctorate in economics from Harvard University. He is married and has four children.

On campaign stops he emphasizes that he built his fortune with hard work rather than inheriting it, and he acts like a man of the people, admiring local women, talking soccer and singing Mexican songs.