SANTIAGO Chilean conservative presidential candidate Pablo Longueira unexpectedly quit his campaign due to depression, his son said on Wednesday, dealing another blow to an already weakened right-wing bloc four months from the general election.
His departure could boost the already strong chances former center-left leader Michelle Bachelet will regain the presidency in the November 17 election or a potential December 15 runoff.
"Our father is sick. After the election in the (right-wing bloc's) primaries, following some days of rest, his health deteriorated due to depression that has been medically diagnosed," said Juan Pablo Longueira, one of Longueira's seven children, during a televised news conference.
Longueira became the conservative Union Democrata Independiente (UDI) party's candidate after businessman Laurence Golborne abandoned his campaign in April over a billing scandal and allegations of undeclared offshore assets.
In the June 30 primaries he edged out Andres Allamand, who hails from President Sebastian Pinera's center-right Renovacion Nacional (RN) party. Pinera is barred by the constitution from running for a second consecutive term.
The fractured right-wing coalition must now decide whether to send one or more candidates to replace Longueira, a veteran politician and former economy minister who was close to ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Potential nominees include Golborne, Allamand, Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei and Education Minister Carolina Schmidt. They have until mid-August to declare their candidacy.
The UDI party said it would meet on Thursday to discuss a replacement.
BACHELET SEEN A SHOO-IN
Regardless of who becomes a right-wing candidate, Bachelet, a pediatrician-turned-politician who governed the world's top copper-exporting nation from 2006 to 2010, is seen returning to the La Moneda presidential palace.
"The only candidate who is emerging from this tempest (unscathed) is Bachelet," said Marta Lagos, the head of pollster MORI. "If candidates continue with these types of surprises, this could end up being a proclamation."
Conservative candidates are also dogged by the legacy of Pinera, a gaffe-prone billionaire who has struggled to connect with ordinary Chileans.
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.
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 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.
The former president said on Wednesday she was "affected" by news of Longueira's depression but made no further comments.
(Reporting by Santiago newsroom; Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito and Fabian Cambero; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Peter Cooney and Xavier Briand)