Chile elects its first female president; opponent concedes

By wire services
Published January 16, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile - A socialist doctor and former political prisoner was elected Sunday as the country's first female president, with her conservative multimillionaire opponent conceding defeat in a race that reflected Latin America's increasingly leftward tilt.

The victory of Michelle Bachelet - a political prisoner during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and defense minister in the current administration - extends the rule of the market-friendly center left coalition that has governed since the end of Pinochet's 1973-90 rule.

With 97.5 percent of some 8-million votes counted, Bachelet had 53.5 percent of the vote to 46 percent for Sebastian Pinera.

Sunday's runoff was necessary after a Dec. 11. election involving four candidates failed to produce a winner with a majority.

Her political success has baffled many Chileans who thought a left-leaning single mother jailed during Pinochet's dictatorship stood little chance in this socially conservative country.

Bachelet, 54, will be only the third woman 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.

Unlike those two women, Bachelet did not follow a politically prominent husband into power.

Chile's next president will be inaugurated on March 11, joining the ranks of Latin American leaders including leftists such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and newly elected Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Bachelet indicated she would work with all the region's leaders. "Chavez, Morales, they are presidents elected by their peoples. Chile must have relationships with all of them."

Election in Jerusalem okayed, but Hamas barred

JERUSALEM - Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert led his Cabinet on Sunday in a unanimous decision to let Palestinians vote in Jerusalem this month.

The move came hours before doctors performed a tracheotomy on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to help wean him off a respirator 11 days after he suffered a stroke, Hadassah Hospital said in a statement. Saturday night, the 77-year-old was taken off the last of the sedatives that kept him in a medically induced coma, it said. But he remained unconscious.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz also directed Olmert on Sunday to continue as acting prime minister.

Israel had threatened to bar voting in east Jerusalem because candidates from the Islamic militant group Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction, are running.

The Cabinet decision said the Jan. 25 voting could proceed as long as armed groups were not on the ballot.

"We don't need Israeli permission to participate in the elections," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Report on election fraud in Iraq expected today

BAGHDAD - Iraq's election commission will announce results of its investigation into allegations of vote fraud today.

The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq has worked through the 50 or so serious complaints of voter fraud lodged after the Dec. 15 election, election official Safwat Rashid said Sunday.

About 2,000 complaints were filed overall, but the commission said only 50 had the potential to change vote totals.

Final election results have been delayed by Sunni Arab complaints of fraud.

The international team assessing the IECI's handling of the voting process also said it would release its final report on Thursday. The IECI is expected to release uncertified final results shortly after that, perhaps as soon as this coming weekend.

Also Sunday, the U.S. military released some 500 prisoners cleared of ties to Iraq's insurgency, including a pair of journalists who had been held in Iraqi prisons for months, U.S. military officials said.

Finland's presidential race forced to runoff vote

HELSINKI, Finland - Finland's left-leaning president failed to win enough votes to secure re-election Sunday, forcing a runoff.

President Tarja Halonen won 46 percent, according to final results, short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. The second-place finisher, Sauli Niinisto, won 24 percent of the vote.

Halonen bears a resemblance to U.S. talk show host Conan O'Brien, who has promoted her re-election on his show as part of a running joke about their supposed physical similarities.