The fall of 2005 was also marked by the political campaigns leading up to presidential elections scheduled for December 2005, the outcome of which would determine the successor to President Ricardo Lagos. In mid-October 2005, key candidates for the presidency participated in a televised debate.
Socialist Michelle Bachelet, who was known for her charisma and effective communication skills, turned in a rather mediocre performance during the debate. However, despite this assessment about her debate performance, she managed to maintain her position as the leading contender for the presidency. According to polls taken in the fall of 2005, the former health minister and defense minister was holding about 47 percent among all candidates. In her response to criticisms and claims from rivals, she said, "I am not running around Chile presenting solutions and commitments that I won't able to fulfill. I'm very serious and not a demagogue."
Bachelet's main rival was conservative Joaquin Lavin, who had not enjoyed the most positive polling results around the time of the debate, but whose performance at the debate was engaged and lively. He strongly attacked the administration of President Ricardo Lagos. Another key contender was right-wing business man and a partial ownership of one of Chile's airline companies, Sebastian Pinera. His focus area was job creation. Both Lavin and Pinera had polled around 20 percent -- substantially less than Bachelet. Thomas Hirsch, the far-left candidate, had the support of about five percent of those polled.
Key issues that were discussed during the debate and that reflected some of the main election season considerations included societal values, crime, employment, reform of the country's private pension system, and foreign relations -- particularly in the regional sphere.
In December 2005, voters went to the polls in Chile in the first round of the presidential elections. In the first round, Bachelet, the candidate of the left-leaning ruling coalition, won close to 46 percent of the votes cast. Her right-wing opponent, Sebastien Pinera, garnered 25 percent of the votes cast and the second place finish. With neither of these top two vote-getters securing more than 50 percent of the vote share, they were scheduled to contest the run-off election on Jan. 15, 2006. Third-place finisher, Joaquin Lavin, placed his support behind Pinera. Lavin's support -- at 23 percent of the vote share -- would strongly boost Pinera's prospects. As a result, the presidential run-off promised to be a close one. Nevertheless, opinion polls suggested that Bachelet continued to command strong support and would also benefit from the five percent of voters who had given their support to leftist, Tomas Hirsch. With Hirsch's supporters likely moving to the other left-leaning camp, Bachelet was regarded as the favorite ahead of the second round.
Meanwhile, in legislative elections, the ruling Concertacion bloc won a majority in the Senate with a resounding 55.7 percent of the votes cast, as well as a majority in the Chamber of Deputies with 51.7 percent. Voter turnout was high, reflecting the priority placed on political participation by Chileans following years of military rule.
On Jan. 15, 2006, leftist candidate Michelle Bachelet became Chile's first female president with 53.5 percent of the votes cast. Her opponent, conservative businessman Sebastian Pinera, garnered 46.5 percent of the vote share. The results of the election were announced only hours after the polls closed and celebrations in the capital city of Santiago began soon thereafter. Large crowds made up of thousands of Bachelet's supporters took to the streets, jubilantly waving flags and blowing horns. In her victory speech, Bachelet thanked her supporters and asked, "Who would have said, 10, 15 years ago, that a woman would be elected president?" Outgoing President Ricardo Lagos, a political ally of Bachelet, described the election of Chile's first female president as a "historic triumph." For his part, Pinera conceded defeat and graciously congratulated Bachelet saying that he wished to "pay homage to all those millions and millions of women who with much strength and tenacity have finally achieved the place and the situation they deserve in our society."
The second round of voting followed the first round in December (discussed above) when no candidate secured the requisite 50 percent for an outright victory. Bachelet and Pinera, as the two top contenders, then had to contest the second round. Pinera, who secured 25 percent of the votes cast in the first round was backed by the third-placed candidate, Joaquin Lavin, who received 23 percent of the votes cast. Pinera had hoped that the combined vote-share from right-leaning support would propel him to victory. Instead, the results suggested that he was unable to consolidate those votes. Meanwhile, Bachelet, who had won 46 percent of the votes in the first round, appeared to be leading the opinion polls ahead of the second round. The final results showed that in addition to picking up the votes of another leftist candidate, Tomas Hirsch, who had garnered five percent in the first round, she also captured some support from the conservative voter base as well.
In this way, Michelle Bachelet became the fourth consecutive leader from the center-left coalition known as Concertacion, which has governed Chile since the end of Augusto Pinochet's multi-year dictatorship in 1990. As the successor to Ricardo Lagos, she was expected to continue Lagos' policies of free market economic policies along with social programs. At the same time, Bachelet promised some degree of change in focus. She said that one of her priorities would be to bridge the chasm between wealth and poverty, and to enshrine women and indigenous people with more voice in the affairs of government. She also vowed to work on both job creation and social justice. Her election victory has been another illustration of the movement to the political left across Latin America in recent years.
Bachelet has strong political roots and a personal story that has resonated strongly with many Chileans. Her father was an air force general and a loyalist of Chile's assassinated leftist leader Salvador Allende. He was imprisoned and tortured to death by General Pinochet's regime. Two years after her father's death, Bachelet and her mother were themselves arrested and tortured during Pinochet's notorious rule. She went on to be educated as a doctor and later served as Chile's Defense Minister. In a country known to be one of the most conservative in Latin America, Bachelet's status as a single mother has been viewed as rather unexpected. Nevertheless, her personal story has clearly contributed to her mass appeal.
Meanwhile, Bachelet now enjoys the distinction of being Chile's first female president and one of few female world leaders. In the Western Hemisphere, that special circle includes:
- Isabel Martinez de Peron in Argentina
- Lidia Gueiler Tejada in Bolivia
- Rosalia Arteaga in Ecuador
- Janet Jagan in Guyana
- Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua
- Mireya Moscoso in Panama
Michelle Bachelet was sworn into office as Chile's first female president on March 12, 2006 at the congressional building in the coastal city of Valparaiso. Bachelet embraced her predecessor, Ricardo Lagos, as she took office amid applause and cheers at a ceremony attended by over two dozen heads of state. Among those attending the ceremony were Bolivian President Evo Morales, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Despite diplomatic tensions between the United States and the South American countries, spirits ran high and celebrations ensued without incident. As outgoing President Lagos addressed the country, he urged Chileans to support their new leader, and referred to her as "a symbol of a country that has advanced toward new challenges, a society that has changed deeply for the better toward liberty, pluralism, equality."
In 1973, Salvador Allende's elected government was overthrown in the military coup d'etat led by General Augusto Pinochet.
Throughout his time in power from 1973 to 1990 , Pinochet's regime gained notoriety across the globe for its economic successes along with its excessive human rights violations. In fact, during the course of the right-wing dictatorship of Pinochet, more than 3,000 people died or "disappeared" after being arrested, while tens of thousands of people were either tortured or exiled. The Pinochet years were also rife with the worst kinds of violence, such as political assassinations. Dissidents, political opponents and those believed to have links with the former Allende regime or with leftist sympathies were particularly targeted. Political assassinations were not limited to Chilean soil either.
Many members of the military and secret police have since been convicted of human rights abuses carried out during the time of Pinochet's regime. In the past, Pinochet enjoyed immunity from prosecution, largely on the basis of ill health. But such immunity did not lasted indefinitely as court rulings gradually stripped him of immunity in several instances – albeit on a case-by-case basis. Still, throughout his life, Pinochet never had to stand trial for any of the charges he was accused of committing during his years in power. Earlier in 2006, on his 91st birthday, his wife read a statement saying that Pinochet accepted "political responsibility" for acts committed during his rule
Former President Lagos and current President Bachelet have represented the political legacy of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, who came to power in 1970. Of the new Chilean president, biographer Andrea Insunza has said: "Michelle Bachelet belongs to the generation that suffered the most after the coup. The majority of those imprisoned, killed, tortured and exiled came from that group, which is why I say her election represents the triumph of history's defeated."