An Unlikely Pioneer

The events of Sept. 11, 1973, turned Michelle Bachelet's world upside down. On that morning the 21-year-old medical student watched Chilean Air Force fighter jets fire rockets into the presidential palace known as La Moneda, a chilling salvo in the bloody coup that took the life of President Salvador Allende and installed a military junta led by Army commander Augusto Pinochet. Her father, Alberto, an Air Force general who worked in the Allende administration, was immediately arrested and tortured and later died of a heart attack at the age of 50. In 1975, Michelle and her mother were themselves rounded up and beaten during a monthlong detention. The two women later went into exile, and when Michelle returned to Chile in 1979 she vowed to help restore the democracy that Pinochet had destroyed. "I saw friends disappear, who were jailed or tortured," says Bachelet. "But I decided to turn my pain into a constructive force--guaranteeing that future generations never --have to go through what we went through."

The same woman who witnessed La Moneda go up in flames is now poised to become its next occupant. The 54-year-old pediatrician turned politician will enter a presidential-runoff election next month as the prohibitive favorite. Barring a last-minute collapse in Bachelet's poll numbers, the Socialist Party leader will make history as the first woman ever to be elected president of a major Latin American country. That will be no small feat in a conservative and heavily Roman Catholic society where divorce was legalized only in 2004; as Bachelet joked in an interview earlier this year, the single mother of three doesn't fit the typical profile of a Chilean pol: "I am a woman, socialist, separated and agnostic." But much of Bachelet's appeal among voters may, in fact, stem from the candidate's unconventional background. "Chileans want to change the structure of the exclusionary politics in this country," says Marta Lagos, director of the Santiago-based polling firm Latinobarometro. "Bachelet happens to represent the furthest possible point away from old-style politics."

The return of democracy to Chile in 1990 opened the way for Bachelet's plunge into mainstream politics. Her medical background qualified her for a position at the Health Ministry, and in 1997 she decided to branch out and study civil-military relations at a Santiago think tank specializing in national-security issues. Bachelet later pursued her studies at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C., and in 1998 she joined the Chilean Defense Ministry as a senior adviser. She entered the cabinet of President Ricardo Lagos two years later as Health minister, and then became Chile's first-ever female Defense minister in 2002. Her family history raised concerns that Bachelet might have a strained relationship with the top brass who had unconditionally backed the Pinochet dictatorship. But she avoided any direct confrontations with the country's generals and admirals and soon emerged as one of the favorites to capture the presidential nomination of the coalition of center-left parties that has governed Chile since 1990.

Ordinary Chileans have warmed to the hardworking, bespectacled Bachelet. Most connect easily with her plain manner and down-to-earth personality, and her reform agenda has won much support, making up for her mostly uneventful term as a cabinet minister. While benefiting from the boom in what is generally regarded as Latin America's showcase economy, she's also pledged to lower the nation's unemployment rate, which peaked at 10 percent this year, and reduce income disparities--among the 10 worst in the world. Bachelet has also proposed a social-welfare program that would ensure full access to education, health care and proper nutrition for all underprivileged children under the age of 10. "The previous governments of the [governing coalition] have succeeded in building economic growth," she told NEWSWEEK last month. "Chileans now want a more hospitable country with greater social convictions and the tools to defend all the people who are vulnerable."

Bachelet also intends to boost the political profile of her gender. Half of all portfolios in her cabinet will be reserved for women, and as president she will push for legislation requiring political parties to fill an established quota of female candidates for elected office. The first woman to become president of Chile is unlikely to be the last, if she has any say in the matter.