SANTIAGO Center-left former President Michelle Bachelet holds a huge lead in Chile's presidential election this year and may attract enough support to win outright in the first round, a key poll showed on Tuesday.
Around 47 percent of Chileans questioned by pollster CEP said they would vote for Bachelet if the election were held this Sunday, while 14 percent backed right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei and 10 percent supported independent economist Franco Parisi.
Twenty-five percent in the poll said they would definitely not or probably not vote. Among those who said they definitely or probably would vote, 54 percent backed Bachelet.
The poll suggests that support for Bachelet is gathering pace and that she may get the 50 percent she needs to win the presidency outright on November 17, without the need for a runoff in December.
No candidate has accomplished that feat since 1993, when Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei beat a right-wing rival.
Chile has seen rapid economic growth in recent years and declining poverty, but income inequality has remained high. Bachelet, who served as president from 2006 to 2010, has said she wants to address that, principally by hiking corporate taxes to pay for an education overhaul.
'A POWERFUL SIGNAL'
"I think this is a powerful signal that we are very pleased about," Javiera Blanco, a spokeswoman for Bachelet, said of the new poll. "But we also reiterate the call to not take it for granted, to not fall victim to triumphalism, because the election will be decided at the polling booths."
Bachelet's strategy to date has been to keep a low media profile in favor of touring the country, meeting people and giving speeches in town plazas. She has been trying to persuade supporters to vote for her Nueva Mayoria coalition in congressional elections in order to ease the passage of her reforms through Congress.
Electoral rules were changed last year to make voting voluntary, adding a dollop of doubt to the outcome, with polls suggesting disenchantment with politics is growing.
Some candidates, led by the maverick Parisi, have sought to capitalize on the anti-political establishment feeling and may fracture the vote to drive it to a second round.
In the poll, 61 percent of respondents offered a positive evaluation of Bachelet while 15 percent offered a negative assessment of her. For Matthei, 23 percent offered a positive evaluation and 53 percent had a negative view.
Only 5 percent of respondents predicted Matthei would win the election, compared to 78 percent for Bachelet.
The candidate for the incumbent Alianza coalition, Matthei is tainted in the eyes of many Chileans by her family associations with the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, as well as disenchantment with the current right-wing administration of Sebastian Pinera.
She has struggled to garner much support since being nominated last July, although polls to date have suggested she would make it through to a second round.
An Ipsos poll last week showed Bachelet getting 32 percent of likely votes, with Matthei at 20 percent and Parisi at 14 percent.
All nine candidates are due to participate in the first part of a two-night televised debate on Tuesday night.
The CEP survey was conducted between September 13 and October 14, with 1,437 people polled. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. It did not ask about voting intentions in a potential run-off.
(Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero, Felipe Iturrieta and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Will Dunham)