Chile's Bachelet announces re-election bid

Popular former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet said late Wednesday she would seek a second term in November 17 elections, vowing to fight inequality if she won.

Bachelet, who from 2006 to 2010 was the first woman to lead the South American country, made the announcement to applause at a public event in a southern Santiago neighborhood where she grew up.

"I am ready for this challenge, I have made the decision to be a candidate," said the 61-year-old before joining the crowd in singing the national anthem.

Polls show that Bachelet is the runaway favorite in the race, even though she first has to win a June 30 primary poll against three largely unknown candidates.

Bachelet arrived in the Chilean capital hours earlier. She has spent the past several years living in New York, where she became the first head of UN Women, a United Nations agency created in 2010 tasked with improving gender equality.

"We knew there were things still to be done" when her leftist coalition left office, Bachelet said, "especially to improve the levels of income disparity."

"We must overcome inequality in Chile," she added. "That must be our biggest priority."

Noting she was overjoyed to be home again, Bachelet said her candidacy was aimed at assembling a "new political and social majority" to tackle a growing malaise among citizens.

Her government program would "not be built between four walls" but through "mutual engagement," she added.

Bachelet had indicated during a visit to Chile in January that she would announce in March whether she would pursue a new mandate, leaving her country on tenterhooks.

A socialist, agnostic and divorced mother of three, Bachelet was a strange choice to lead staunchly Roman Catholic Chile, but her informal political style and personal touch led her to being dubbed "the mother of Chileans."

She left office with an approval rating of 84 percent, despite criticism over the response to Chile's massive February 2010 earthquake, and left behind a legacy of mostly successful efforts to improve the lot of Chilean women.

The Chilean constitution prohibits the serving of two consecutive terms and so Bachelet could not immediately seek re-election.

Born in September 1951 in Santiago, Bachelet studied medicine and joined the Socialist Youth as a teenager.

Her father, an Air Force general, was a close adviser to president Salvador Allende, and was imprisoned and tortured after Augusto Pinochet toppled the socialist leader on September 11, 1973. Bachelet's father died six months later.

Secret police whisked Bachelet and her mother to a torture center in January 1975. The two women were eventually freed, and fled first to Australia and then to East Germany, where Bachelet completed her medical studies.

Already the mother of a young son, Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979 but was prevented from practicing as a doctor by the dictatorship.

She continued studying, specializing in pediatrics and public health and in 1984 gave birth to a daughter. Her third child, Sofia, was born nine years later.

Bachelet studied military strategy in Santiago and later in Washington, and in 2000 was appointed health minister with a mandate to reform the sector. She later became minister of defense.