SANTIAGO Chilean president Sebastian Pinera urged his fractured right-wing coalition to settle on one presidential candidate ahead of the November general election, as the bloc scrambles to avert an electoral debacle.
Conservative candidate Pablo Longueira decided to abandoned his presidential campaign to deal with his depression, his son announced on Wednesday, leaving the already weakened right without a candidate just four months from the election.
Longueira had stepped in after former right-wing favorite Laurence Golborne dropped his candidacy in April due to a scandal from his time as chief executive officer of retailer Cencosud.
"Hopefully we don't make a show of staging a conflict and fight between two parties when what we have to do is reach an agreement," said conservative Pinera, who is barred from seeking a second consecutive term. "I think it's best to go with one candidate," he said on a morning talk show.
But regardless of whom the bloc selects, popular former center-left leader Michelle Bachelet is seen easily staging a presidential comeback in November 17 general election or a potential December 15 runoff.
Pinera said former candidate Andres Allamand, an ex-defense minister who narrowly lost to Longueira in the June 30 primaries, and current Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei are strong candidates to take on Bachelet.
Both veteran politicians would be dogged by the legacy of Pinera, a gaffe-prone billionaire who has struggled to connect with ordinary Chileans despite the country's robust economic growth.
Allamand, a lawyer by training, shot to fame in 2011 for managing rescue efforts after a small plane crashed off the remote Juan Fernandez islands, killing all 21 aboard, including a beloved local TV presenter. Allamand hails from Pinera's center-right Renovacion Nacional (RN) party.
Analysts say his candidacy is hurt by his scant charisma and his vote in favor of continuing Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship in a 1988 plebiscite, though Allamand says he then supported democracy in the Andean country.
Matthei, an economist known for her bluntness, is a seasoned member of the conservative Union Democrata Independiente (UDI) party. Her father was a general under Pinochet.
Pinera appeared to draw the distinction between Matthei's sharp style and Bachelet's affable manner.
"Is (Matthei) a calm, peaceful, conciliatory woman? No. But she's a woman with strength, with passion, with intelligence, who really pushes things forward," he said, adding that "Allamand is a very good option."
Should the right decide to send two candidates into the general election, some analysts say Bachelet could end up triumphing in November without the need for a run-off and that internal squabbling could sink the right-wing bloc.
But others say more candidates, including independents and those from smaller parties who are planning to run, could push the election into a December run-off.
Bachelet is set to win in the first round with 51 percent of votes, a poll by research center CERC showed on Thursday. The poll was conducted between June 10 and June 22, before the primaries, and has a margin of error of 3 points.
She received 73.07 percent of votes in her left-wing bloc's primaries three weeks ago.
The pediatrician-turned-politician has promised to tackle Chile's steep economic inequality by raising corporate taxes to fund free university-level education, legalize abortion in some cases and reform the Pinochet-era constitution.
Candidate have until mid-August to declare their candidacy.
(Reporting by Santiago newsroom; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Vicki Allen)