SANTIAGO Around 44 percent of Chileans are rooting for former center-left President Michelle Bachelet to make a comeback in this year's election against a weakened right-wing candidate, a poll showed on Thursday.
Only 12 percent of those polled favor Evelyn Matthei, a fiery former labor minister, the fractured right's front-runner.
A fifth of those polled said they did not know or declined to say who they would like to win November's election, according to pollster CEP. Four percent are keen on Franco Parisi, an independent economist who appeals to some more centrist Chileans, and another four percent on Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a left-leaning politician.
Analysts say candidates from smaller parties and independents could splinter votes and push the November 17 election into a December 15 run-off. Candidates need more than 50 percent of the vote to win in the first round.
Still, 75 percent of Chileans think popular Bachelet eventually will be the next president, versus only six percent who have that expectation for Matthei.
As Bachelet is widely expected to cruise to victory, the key question is now whether she will clinch the necessary parliamentary majority to push through her ambitious agenda.
The pediatrician-turned-politician, who governed the Andean nation from 2006 to 2010, appears to have returned to Chile with more of a left-wing program.
Bachelet is seeking to "work towards" free education, increase corporate taxes and overhaul the dictatorship-era constitution.
While Chile is an economic star in Latin America, many in the economically stratified country feel they have not reaped the benefits of a copper boom and are eager for improved social policies.
TWO WOMEN CANDIDATES
Matthei's candidacy marks the first time the two main presidential candidates in Chile are women - and daughters of former air force generals.
But the candidates' families stood on opposite sides of Chile's radical 1970s political divide.
Bachelet's father was loyal to socialist President Salvador Allende, who was removed in a 1973 military coup that ushered in the brutal, 17-year Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Bachelet's father was subsequently arrested and tortured by Pinochet's agents and died in prison months later.
Matthei's father, however, was a member of Pinochet's junta.
The coup still polarizes Chile, and is high on the political radar as the country nears the 40-year anniversary on September 11.
The fractured right-wing bloc rallied around Matthei - essentially the bloc's third frontrunner this year - after former candidate Pablo Longueira unexpectedly dropped out of the race, citing depression.
The results are part of a wider poll and reflect 1,306 interviews conducted between July 20, when Matthei became the conservative UDI party's candidate, and August 18.
The CEP's wider poll, conducted between July 13 and August 18, included 1,471 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer)