(For full coverage, please click on [nCHILE])
* Pinera seen leading Sunday vote, winning run-off
* No major policy shifts seen whoever wins
* Maverick candidate weakens ruling coalition
By Simon Gardner
SANTIAGO, Dec 9 (Reuters) - A conservative billionaire is the favorite in Chile’s presidential election this weekend and is expected to go on to win a January run-off, ending 20 years of center-left rule in Latin America’s most stable economy.
A victory by businessman Sebastian Pinera would mark a shift to the right in a region dominated by leftist leaders, but few see major changes to the policies that have made world No.1 copper producer Chile a model of prudent economic management.
Harvard-educated Pinera, 60, runner-up in Chile’s last election, is seen taking the most votes out of a field of four candidates on Sunday with former president Eduardo Frei from the fragmented center-left ruling coalition likely to come in second. [ID:nN11349782] [ID:nN09160122]
Unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, which is not expected, the two front runners will head to a second round on Jan. 17. The run-off is expected to be a close race, although polls show Pinera with an edge.
Pinera vows to create a million jobs and boost growth to 6 percent a year through tax incentives and labor sector reforms, and to improve the efficiency of state copper giant Codelco [CODEL.UL] as the economy claws its way out of its first recession in a decade. [ID:nN08200703] [ID:nN07154360]
“If we do the same things we’ve been doing for the past 20 years, we’ll get the same results,” Pinera said as his campaign wound down. “Give us an opportunity to do things better.”
His critics say he wants to run Chile like a money-hungry business manager, and that his immense wealth and stakes in businesses such as LAN LAN.SN LFL.N , one of Latin America’s biggest airlines, raise conflicts of interest.
Frei, 67, who was president from 1994-2000 and oversaw rising unemployment during the Asia Crisis, pledges continuity with the social programs of President Michelle Bachelet, who is very popular but cannot run for immediate re-election.
Frei has tried but been unable to gain much from Bachelet’s 77 percent approval rating as infighting, defections and voter anger have undermined the center-left ruling coalition that first formed in the 1980s to fight Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship, notorious for human rights abuses.
Frei’s campaign posters often carry Bachelet’s image and he rarely refers to his own first term.
“I will continue with the path (Bachelet) has marked out,” Frei said. “We represent continuity.”
The political right has not won an election for 50 years in Chile, a copper, fruit, wood pulp and salmon exporting nation of 16 million people with the highest living standards in Latin America according to the Human Development Index.
Independent dark horse candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami is polling third and has split the left’s vote, endangering Frei’s chances by attracting voters who are tired of Chile’s traditional parties.
He forced the other candidates to address issues such as gay marriage and abortion in socially conservative Chile, where divorce was only legalized in 2004, and calls his rivals “dinosaurs ... who kidnapped democracy”.
A 36-year-old former film producer, Enriquez-Ominami has refused overtures to forge a leftist pact to defeat Pinera, and how his supporters vote in a run-off could be a big factor in the outcome. [ID:nN03434892]
Pinera, who piloted his private helicopter around the country to make campaign stops in remote areas, would likely build on existing policies rather than make major changes.
The left is expected to retain a small majority in both houses of Congress, meaning Pinera would be forced to negotiate with rivals to push through legislation.
Resistance from powerful mining unions will probably block any efforts to follow through on a campaign pledge to sell up to 20 percent of Codelco [ID:nN07158519]
“In terms of domestic risks, they are very limited. There is very little risk of policy reversals or ... social confrontation,” said Alberto Ramos, senior economist for Goldman Sachs in New York. (Additional reporting by Alonso Soto, Rodrigo Martinez, Antonio de la Jara, Alvaro Tapia and Aaron Nelsen; Editing by Kieran Murray)