Yet, Michelle Bachelet is far ahead of the candidates of a split right-wing opposition going into Sunday’s presidential election.
Although her poll figures have slipped in the past days and she may fail to get the 50% needed to avoid a runoff vote, Chileans have found her unconventional resume, which blends recent history with her own painful story, appealing.
Bachelet, 54, is the candidate for the centre-left Concertacion, the coalition of leftist and centrist parties that has governed Chile for 16 years, since democracy returned.
“I am just a Chilean woman, no more and no less than millions of other Chileans,” Bachelet is fond of saying. “I work, I take care of my home and I drop my daughter off at school. But I’m also a Chilean that feels a calling to fight for justice and for public service.”
According to people who work with her, Bachelet is an indefatigable worker who sleeps little but enjoys parties and dancing. She is spontaneous, a straight-talker, affable and smiles easily, but at times can be stern.
“I work, I take care of my home and I drop my daughter off at school. But I’m also a Chilean that feels a calling to fight for justice and for public service”
Bachelet is separated from her husband – divorce is hard to come by in this conservative Roman Catholic country – and the mother of three children from two different fathers.
She is also a former minister of health and Latin America‘s only female minister of defence. If she is elected, she will become Chile‘s first female president.
Her popularity surprised even President Ricardo Lagos, who by law cannot run for re-election, according to an unofficial biography.
Born on 29 September 1951 in Santiago, the young Veronica Michelle travelled the length of Chile with her father, air force officer Alberto Bachelet.
In 1970, she enrolled in college to study medicine and soon joined the Socialist Youth. Her father, then a general, was a close adviser to the newly-elected Socialist president Salvador Allende.
When the military toppled Allende in the 11 September 1973 coup, her father was arrested. He died six months later, weakened after being tortured while under arrest.
Bachelet, 23, continued studying while secretly helping those persecuted by the government.
Her luck ran out in January 1975 when secret police whisked her and her mother off to Villa Grimaldi, a known torture centre run by the military junta.
“Torture is terrible, especially from the psychological point of view, because it is so humiliating,” she said years later.
The two women were set free nearly a month later and fled the country, first to Australia and then to East Germany, where Bachelet completed her medical studies.
Bachelet also studied military
Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979 with her one-year-old son
She obtained a medical diploma in 1982, but was prevented from practising by the military government of General Augusto Pinochet.
Bachelet continued studying, specialising in paediatrics and public health. A second child, Francesca, was born in 1984, while she worked at a non-governmental organisation that supported victims of the dictatorship.
After the military left power in 1990, Bachelet focused on her work in public health, first as a doctor, then as a member of the national committee for Aids, and later, as a consultant for the World Health Organisation.
On the belief that the Socialists did not understand properly the role of the military in Chilean society, she also took the unusual step of studying military issues, first military strategy in Santiago and later military regional defence in Washington.
In 2000, when Lagos was elected president, she was appointed minister of health, with the task of reforming the sector.
Two years later she became the country’s first female minister of defence – and her popularity sky-rocketed as she pushed for reconciliation between the country’s civilians and the military.