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Chile Elects A Socialist

In the closest election since Chile's return to democracy, Ricardo Lagos was elected the first socialist president since Salvador Allende was overthrown in a 1973 coup.

Lagos, however, espouses none of the Marxist radicalism of Allende, who died in the coup that ushered in the long dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. He talks little of old enmities and even exhorted his defeated rival, Joaquin Lavin, to help him unify Chileans and look ahead, not back toward the violent past.

With nearly all votes counted from Sunday's vote, Lagos had 51.3 percent of the vote to Lavin's 48.6 percent, the government said. More than 7.3 million of 8 million registered voters peacefully cast ballots in this South American nation.

"Today we have created a Chile that is more unified, a country united in democracy," said Lagos, 61, a moderate socialist and candidate of the Concertacion the center-left coalition that has governed Chile since 1990. "I will not forget the past, but my eyes are on the future."

Lagos, who is to begin a six-year term on March 11, will succeed Eduardo Frei, who was constitutionally barred from re-election.

Pinochet opponents interrupted Lagos' victory speech with repeated and raucous chants of "Trial for Pinochet!"

Lagos had emerged as a leading figure in the fight against Pinochet in the mid-1980s.

After leftist guerrillas made an attempt on Pinochet's life in 1986, Lagos was one of several leftists arrested by state security agents in a crackdown. Lagos apparently had nothing to do with that attempt, and after spending several days in jail, he came out to work for the restoration of democratic rule. He remains a hero for Pinochet foes.

However, most analysts agreed Pinochet's situation had little if any influence on the election. Both candidates sought to distance themselves from the former dictator during the race. On Sunday, Lagos told the crowds that any Pinochet trial is something the courts must resolve.

"In my government, the courts will decide what cases to try and I will make sure that those decisions are respected," he said.

Pinochet has been detained in Britain since October 1998 on a warrant from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who wants to try the general for alleged human rights abuses during his rule.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw said last week that doctors have concluded Pinochet is too ill to face trial, suggesting he might send the former dictator home.

The defeated Lavin, 46, was a strong supporter of Pinochet's 1973-90 military regime as a junior economist the planning ministry. He is a successful two-term mayor of Las Condes, Santiago's swankiest suburb.

Lagos has promised to create more than 100,000 jobs and wants to create unemployment insurance in Chile, a country of 15 million people seeking to improve its social safety net.

Chile is now struggling to escape its worst recession in 16 ears.
Lavin forced Lagos into a virtual draw in the first round of voting on Dec. 12. In defeat, Lavin was gracious. But he noted his was the strongest showing by the Chilean right in decades, harnessing a "spectacular number of votes."

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