Chileans Set to Elect a Woman ; Michelle Bachelet Leads Polls Going into Sunday's Presidential Election

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A crescendo of female voices fills the Diego Portales Convention Center at a recent presidential debate on women's issues. "Michelle" is the rallying cry, as a predominantly female crowd of 3,000 cheers on Chile's sole female contender.

"It's inspiring," says Magdalena Correa, to the wide-eyed approvals of two friends. "We came to support Michelle because we're women, heads of the household, self-employed, and we want there to be a stronger voice for women in Chile."

Heading into this Sunday's presidential election, Michelle Bachelet is leading all polls and appears poised to become Chile's first female president. In a country long considered the most conservative in Latin America, observers say Mrs. Bachelet's popularity, coupled with progressive reforms enacted during her time in government, are signs of a profound cultural change.

"The mere fact that there's a woman candidate has produced a shift in Chile," says Marta Mauras, secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. "It's a change that mirrors a broader process of achieving rights in a mature democracy."

A former medical doctor, Bachelet served briefly as health minister in the cabinet of current president Ricardo Lagos, before becoming Chile's first-ever female defense minister - an unusual appointment, given Chile's male-dominated culture.

It was also a controversial appointment, as her father was an Air Force commander who died while in detention for opposing Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup. Bachelet herself spent 10 days imprisoned in a camp before fleeing with her mother to Australia.

Years after returning to Chile, she entered politics as an unknown, and was brought into the cabinet under Mr. Lagos's quota system, which required five female ministers.

As defense minister, Bachelet spearheaded a policy to incorporate more women in the ranks of the armed forces; and as health minister, she legalized the sale of the morning-after pill by prescription. Also, a number of new laws introduced under the Lagos administration have also been seen as progressive for women: including the divorce law, a law banning sexual harassment in the workplace, and a law making domestic abuse a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail. These reforms have helped Bachelet's campaign, observers say.

If she wins, Bachelet would be the fourth consecutive president from the ruling center-left coalition (La Concertacion) since Chile's return to democracy in 1990. But analysts say that being a woman gives her campaign the appearance of change without a change of party.

And she has capitalized on her gender, declaring at the women's issues debate: "I'm not neutral. I'm the only one here who knows what it's like to be a woman.... As your candidate, I have a commitment to you, and as President of the Republic, I'm going to fight for women."

Bachelet has made women's rights a focus in her campaign - promising subsidized child care, more services for abused women, and a cabinet with an equal number of male and female ministers. …