SANTIAGO Billionaire President Sebastian Pinera's popularity rebounded to 38 percent in February, a near two-year high, on approval of Chile's robust economic growth and foreign policy, pollster Adimark said on Tuesday.
Pinera, a former airline magnate, has been dogged by the lowest popularity levels for any president since the end of Augusto Pinochet's brutal dictatorship in 1990, amid demands for improved education and wealth distribution in Chile, the world No. 1 copper producer.
But it appears brisk economic expansion, low unemployment levels and high investment rates have started to benefit Pinera, who took over in 2010.
Territorial conflicts with neighbors Peru and Bolivia that recently resurfaced also appear to have boosted Pinera, who is barred by the constitution from running for a second consecutive term in November's presidential election.
Pinera won points in opinion polls for publicly rebuking Bolivian president Evo Morales' bid for sea access during a meeting of Latin American heads of state in Santiago this January.
Pinera's approval level recovered from 32 percent in September, when the previous Adimark poll was released, to reach its highest point since May 2011.
It had dipped to an all-time low of 26 percent in April amid protests to reform the country's costly and stratified education system and complaints that planned tax reform didn't go far enough.
While Chile is pointed to as a model for economic growth in Latin America, it has the highest income inequality among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries and the rate has barely fallen since 1990, according to a report by the group in 2011.
Many Chileans think Pinera is able to face crises and solve problems but he doesn't inspire confidence, Tuesday's poll showed. Roughly 51 percent of those polled said they disapprove of him.
NOVEMBER ELECTIONS EYED
The fractured left-wing coalition, which Pinera ousted from a 20-year rule, is hoping popular former president Michelle Bachelet will stage a comeback in the November election. Pinera belongs to the right-wing Renovacion Nacional party.
Former Public Works Minister Laurence Golborne, a charismatic businessman, and former Defense Minister Andres Allamand, a seasoned politician, are jostling to be the right-wing bloc's candidate.
About 49 percent of Chileans say they want Bachelet to be the country's next president, versus 11 percent for Golborne and 5 percent for Allamand, pollster CEP said in January.
"I think what we'll see is... (Pinera) getting up into the 40s and so I don't think that's necessarily enough to help whoever the successor candidate is," said Risa Grais-Targow, Latin American analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington.
But she added that though "the polls make it look like a cakewalk for Bachelet... it won't necessarily be."
Adimark polled 1,421 people between February 4 and February 28, with a margin or error of plus or minus 2.6 percent.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jeffrey Benkoe)