The capital sinner set to be president

Observations on Chile

She was Latin America's first female defence minister. Now 54-year-old Michelle Bachelet is poised to be elected Chile's first female president.

Even though she admits she incarnates "all the capital sins - socialist, my father's daughter, divorced and an atheist", the polls in Bachelet's notoriously conservative country show her so far ahead of her nearest rival that the question now is whether she can win an outright majority in the first round of elections on 11 December, dispensing with the need for a run-off in the new year.

That father she mentioned is an important part of her story. An air force general of progressive views, he joined Salvador Allende's government in 1972, at a time when Michelle was at medical school, and after Augusto Pinochet's coup a year later remained loyal to Allende. He died of a heart attack under torture in 1974.

Michelle and her mother might well have shared his fate. They were sent to the infamous Villa Grimaldi torture centre but their remaining links with the air force saved them, and instead they were sent into exile, eventually in East Germany. From there Bachelet returned to finish her studies, specialising in paediatrics, and began work at a public hospital.

Pinochet stood down in 1998 and in 2000 Ricardo Lagos, Chile's first nominally socialist president since Allende, made Bachelet health minister. Two years later she became defence minister (she has a Masters from the Inter-American Defence College in Washington), remarking in her inauguration speech that her father would have been proud of her.

She made a success of the job. Strained relations between the armed forces and civil government improved, women were incorporated into combat units and peacekeepers were despatched to Haiti. Her popularity soared after she was photographed riding on a troop carrier through driving rain after ordering the army to help flood victims in Santiago.

Long associated with the hard left, Bachelet has surrounded herself with liberal economic advisers, to the point where, after a five-hour meeting with her, the chief of the powerful Chilean Federation of Industry told reporters that

"it doesn't make any difference who wins the presidency". A Bachelet government would, he believed, keep faith with Chile's neoliberal economic model.

She has none the less ruled out further privatisations of state assets or tax cuts, and has stubbornly kept open the option of tax increases. She is also a firm advocate of levying royalties on foreign firms operating in Chile's lucrative copper mines.

Isabel Allende, Socialist congresswoman, daughter of Salvador Allende and cousin of the author of the same name, stresses how Bachelet's popularity derives from the sense of affinity she inspires. "Michelle reflects a long-hidden reality in Chile, not the fake image of the perfect family or the model politician. When she was health minister she used to laugh and tell people she was overweight and had high blood pressure."

Bachelet is a single mother of three and takes her family life seriously, spending her weekends with her youngest daughter, going on family holidays and taking Mother's Day off to visit her own mother. When the opposition tried to capitalise on this it found that, in a country with an average working week of more than 50 hours, her stand is popular, especially with female voters.

Her opponents also attacked her as a Marxist, but found the country tired of ideological animosity. Their next tack was to portray her as a creation of the marketing industry. According to Carlos Huneeus of Cerc, a think-tank and polling agency, this too is a mistake. "The media and the polls helped position her but didn't create her," he says. He attributes her appeal to her being the socialist who has wooed and tamed Chile's authoritarian armed forces.

Remarkably, even in those same armed forces, there are many with a high regard for the socialist woman who, as one middle-ranking army officer put it, "speaks our language and understands our codes".