SANTIAGO Leftist candidate Michelle Bachelet was the clear winner in Chile's presidential election on Sunday, although she may have to wait until a second round runoff next month to seal her victory.
With nine candidates running, the vote was fractured and Bachelet, seeking her second term as president, was falling short of the 50 percent she needed for an outright first-round victory.
Bachelet, who led Chile between 2006 and 2010 as its first female president, had 46.6 percent support with 54.6 percent of votes counted on Sunday night. Evelyn Matthei of the ruling right-wing coalition was second with 25.2 percent.
The two women look set to go head to head in a runoff on December 15. Bachelet is expected to win by a wide margin and she is promising an ambitious program of planned reforms.
Supporters of the largely anti-establishment minor candidates likely will throw their support to Bachelet in the second round, or else abstain, so her eventual victory looks assured.
A physician by training and moderate socialist by conviction, Bachelet has promised 50 reforms in her first 100 days if she returns to power.
Her flagship policy is an increase in corporate taxes to 25 percent from 20 percent to pay for education reforms that include a gradual move to free higher education.
"I voted for Bachelet," said pensioner Fernando Forttes as he left the polling station on Sunday. "I hope the model will change ... with more social justice and through that more opportunities. Her program is a European social democrat program. It's nothing from another world. Here there will be no revolution."
Bachelet also needs control of Congress to push through the changes she wants. Results from congressional elections were expected later on Sunday.
ECHOES OF PAST
Chile is an economic success story in Latin America but the showdown between Bachelet and Matthei has revived memories of darker days when socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet in a 1973 coup that ushered in 17 years of dictatorship.
Bachelet and her father were victims of torture during the Pinochet years, while Matthei's father was a general in the dictator's junta.
Matthei supported Pinochet in the 1998 plebiscite on his rule, and the 40th anniversary of the coup in September left her facing awkward questions just as the presidential campaign was getting going.
The brusque former labor minister, who was a last minute choice for the ruling Alianza coalition in July, has pledged to largely continue the business-friendly policies of the current Sebastian Pinera administration if she is elected.
But dissatisfaction with Pinera's rule is high. Despite healthy economic growth and plaudits for its fiscal responsibility, the government is seen as out of touch and slow to respond to demands for change.
Sometimes violent student demonstrations demanding free education have not helped the government's image.
Assuming she wins in December, Bachelet will hope to have gained some breathing space by bringing the Communist Party into her Nueva Mayoria coalition. The party has strong links with the student protesters, and some former student leaders - including Camila Vallejo, the face of the movement - are also running for seats in the lower house.
But they are likely to prove prickly allies, and their support will not be unconditional if Bachelet faces stalemate in Congress or has to water down her reforms to get them through, once she takes the reins in March 2014.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Kieran Murray and Bill Trott)