Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s president, who hands over power on Thursday, famously said before taking office in 2006 that politicians should not be allowed “second helpings”.

Although she ended up bending her own rule, installing tried and tested faces rather than the new blood she had promised, such was her popular approval that a second bid for the presidency in 2013 looked likely.

The February 27 earthquake changed all that. Though Ms Bachelet exuded the empathy that is one of her best-loved traits as she toured wrecked towns, hugged victims and choked back tears on television, warnings of a tsunami were botched and she looked slow to deliver aid or deploy the military to quell looting.

The earthquake, which hit just as Chile was emerging from recession and heading for a rise in gross domestic product of up to 5.5 per cent this year, is expected to wipe out growth in the first half and spark a temporary rise in inflation, though the mammoth reconstruction effort will spur recovery and jobs later in 2010.

“The possibility of a comeback has evaporated,” says Eugenio Tironi, a political analyst. “There are some things you can’t fix by just being nice. There are questions now about her ability to take decisions.”

Ms Bachelet hands over on Tursday to Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman. The handover will end two decades of rule by a leftwing coalition that took power after the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, under which Ms Bachelet was tortured and fled into exile.

Even before he takes office Mr Piñera finds himself defined as the “reconstruction president”. He must pour tens of millions of dollars into rebuilding wrecked homes, hospitals, roads, bridges, port installations and the main airport in a Pacific rim nation that relies on exports. He also has to help key industries such as wine, fishing and forestry get back on their feet.

“This is a dramatic end to a [political] transition,” says Marta Lagos, a pollster. “It destroys the possibility of Bachelet having any legacy at all. I haven’t heard a single positive word in favour of her.”

Describing herself as “a woman, a socialist, separated, agnostic – all the sins together”, the 58-year-old doctor and single mother broke the socially conservative mould in Latin America. She became the region’s first female defence minister in 2002 and then the first woman president of a leading Latin American country to gain power without help from a powerful husband.

Though her approval rating had soared to more than 80 per cent before the quake, the past four years have not been plain sailing for Ms Bachelet.

Her popularity dived when her government hurried the introduction of an integrated metro and bus system for the capital, Santiago, leaving thousands of residents facing epic journeys to work. She won respect for carrying the can for the fiasco, but the scars remained. Strikes and student protests also erupted, and commentators say education reform remains one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business from her term.

Ms Bachelet’s personal style also came under fire. While her practicality and honesty won fans, critics were quick to slam her as a ditherer and naive as she set up councils to examine key issues.

Her legacy includes sweeping pension reform and progress on women’s rights, as well as a 500 per cent expansion of the national kindergarten network that enables many poor mothers to return to work or study.

In addition she hands over the world’s top copper-producing nation flush with $11bn in the bank, prudently saved from copper profits, and an economy that weathered the global financial storm and was recently rewarded with membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Guillermo Holzmann, at the University of Chile, says her international reputation “remains absolutely intact”. Domestically, though, her achievements are now overshadowed.

“It’s very sad,” says Rodrigo Alvarez, of the Latin American School of Social Sciences. “She didn’t deserve to go out like this.”

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