Chile elected socialist Michelle Bachelet to be its first woman president on Sunday, making her only the second woman elected to head a South American state as Latin America cements a shift to the left.
With almost all votes counted, Bachelet, from Chile's ruling center-left coalition, won 53 percent of ballots cast while opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera took 47 percent, the government Electoral Service said.
Bachelet, 54, a medical doctor imprisoned and tortured during the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship before living in exile abroad, will be the fourth consecutive president from the center-left alliance that has run Chile since 1990.
"Violence came into my life, destroying what I loved, because I was a victim of hate," Bachelet told tens of thousands of confetti-tossing supporters along the main boulevard in downtown Santiago. "I have dedicated my life to reversing that hate and converting it into understanding, tolerance and, why not say it, love."
"Who would have said, 10, 15 years ago, that a woman would be elected president," said Bachelet, a single mother of three.
As Bachelet ended her speech in a Santiago hotel, thousands of people outside started a carnival-like party, dancing and singing to the rhythm of a popular local tropical music band. Police said the celebrations were orderly.
A former defense minister, Bachelet is only the second woman elected to head a South American nation after Janet Jagan of Guyana was chosen to succeed her husband as president in 1997 after he died.
"I feel emotional, happy. We are breathing the air of liberty and unity," said Ana Paredes, 37, a hotel employee who said she spontaneously decided to join Bachelet revelers.
The celebration extended well into the night with jubilant supporters honking their car horns and shaking giant flags.
Bachelet, an agnostic with three children from two relationships, benefited from a shift to more secular values in Chile, which until recently had a reputation as one of the region's most socially conservative countries.
She pledged during her victory speech to bring more social equality to Chile by the time her four-year term ends in 2010, with social security and equal educational opportunities for all. "I want my government to be remembered as a government for everybody," she said.
She will join other leftist leaders in the region including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and newly elected Evo Morales of Bolivia, but indicated she will not bring about radical change to the South American country of 16 million.
"We will continue to walk the same road," she said in her victory speech on Sunday, making it clear she intends to maintain the coalition's free-market economic policies that have turned Chile's economy into one of the region's strongest.
Political scientist Ricardo Israel said a main challenge for her will be to bring more women into public office, and to find a place for her social-democratic coalition within the range of leftist governments taking hold in Latin America.
Israel said she would have to balance the need to maintain good global relations, particularly with the US so Chile can keep benefiting from global free trade, while guaranteeing a steady natural gas supply from its neighbors.