Chile Christian Democrats pick senator for crowded presidential race

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s center-left Christian Democratic Party, one of the nation’s largest, nominated Senator Carolina Goic on Saturday as its flag bearer for the November presidential election, adding one more candidate to an increasingly crowded field.

Goic, like the Christian Democratic Party writ large, is generally center-left on economic issues and center-right to conservative on social issues. While the 44-year-old senator tends to vote with center-left President Michelle Bachelet, parts of her party have dissented at times on issues such as strengthening labor laws and liberalizing Chile’s strict abortion ban.

“It must be us, those who are in politics, who find a way to reconnect with the people, so that the people return to trusting,” Goic told cheering supporters at the party’s annual meeting in downtown Santiago.

Months ago, the presidential election in one of South America’s wealthiest nations looked set to be a sleepy affair between two market friendly former presidents, conservative Sebastian Pinera and Ricardo Lagos of the center-left Party for Democracy.

High-profile members of various center-left parties, including the Christian Democrats, had said they might be willing to support Lagos in the left-leaning Nueva Mayoria bloc’s primaries, forgoing the opportunity to put forth candidates of their own.

But since then, the 79-year-old Lagos has lagged severely in the polls, while Alejandro Guillier, a leftist ex-journalist, has surged in popularity.

As a result, parties in the Nueva Mayoria are nominating their own candidates, and centrist parties in the bloc, including the Christian Democrats, are considering skipping the coalition’s primaries altogether.

According to the most recent polls, Pinera is leading the presidential race with Guillier a close second. A number of candidates including Goic, Lagos, and right-wing populist Manuel Jose Ossandon, are vying for a distant third.

In a speech at the party meeting on Saturday, Goic called for changes to Chile’s public pension system, which many on the left say is insufficiently generous.

A lawmaker of Croatian heritage who represents the country’s southernmost region, Goic also called for delegating more political decision-making from the capital Santiago to the regions.

In response to the speech, Chile’s right shot back by tying Goic to Bachelet, who is deeply unpopular due to a slow economy, a raft of graft scandals, and congressional gridlock.

“There isn’t any difference between the parliamentarian and President Bachelet,” said Senator Juan Antonio Coloma of the right-wing UDI party.

Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Mary Milliken