SANTIAGO (Reuters) - A conservative billionaire led Chile’s presidential vote by a wide margin on Sunday, making him the favorite to win a run-off and oust the leftist bloc that has ruled for the two decades since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Sebastian Pinera, a Harvard-educated businessman, was winning just over 44 percent of votes against 31 percent for ruling coalition candidate ex-President Eduardo Frei, an official vote count of about 60 percent of polling stations showed.
Pinera and Frei go to a second election on January 17 since no one in the four-way race took more than 50 percent. Analysts say Pinera’s healthy lead in the first round puts him in a strong position to win in January.
A Pinera victory would mark a shift to the right in a region dominated by leftist leaders but he is not expected to overhaul economic policies that have made Chile a model of stability.
“This election pits the past against the future, stagnation against progress, division against unity,” Pinera told reporters on the eve of the vote.
The political right has not won an election for 50 years in Chile, a copper-, fruit- and salmon-exporting country of 16 million that stretches from a mine-rich desert in the north to the icy tip of South America.
Pinochet seized power in a 1973 coup and more than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared during his 17-year rule.
The leftist coalition that has run the country since Pinochet stepped down in 1990 has been credited with developing the region’s highest standard of living but it has been weakened in recent years by infighting and defections.
Many voters believe the left has not done enough to distribute billions of dollars in copper earnings through social programs and improve education and healthcare.
“After 20 years I have stopped believing in the Concertacion,” 33-year-old software designer Karla Espinoza said, referring to the ruling coalition of center-left parties, as she voted for Pinera at his boyhood school, Verbo Divino, in Santiago. She voted for President Michelle Bachelet, not Pinera, at the last election in 2005.
Pinera, a 60-year-old extreme sports enthusiast who piloted his own helicopter to remote settlements during the campaign, plans to use corporate tax breaks and job subsidies to lure investment if elected.
He has promised to boost average annual economic growth to 6 percent and create 1 million jobs. But his plan relies on foreign investment rebounding and an uninterrupted recovery from the first recession in a decade. Chile’s stock market is seen rallying if he wins.
Pinera’s critics say he wants to run Chile like a money-hungry business boss and that his immense wealth and stakes in businesses such as LAN, one of Latin America’s biggest airlines, raise conflicts of interest.
They also question his ethics. Pinera was fined about $700,000 in 2007, accused of abusing privileged information when he bought LAN shares a day before it published earnings.
Frei, 67, whose 1994-2000 presidency was rocked by a recession amid the Asian financial crisis, has pledged to continue the social programs of Bachelet, who is very popular.
The civil engineer, who jokes he is seen as “very boring,” likely will struggle to unite the left, which has been divided by independent candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami.
The 36-year-old son of a guerrilla leader slain during Pinochet’s rule split from the ruling coalition and polled third on Sunday with 19 percent, the partial official count showed.
A former film director, Enriquez-Ominami rejected any pact with Frei before Sunday’s vote, and whether or not he backs him could be a big factor in the outcome of the run-off.
Fourth-place candidate Jorge Arrate of a leftist bloc that includes Chile’s Communist Party had nearly 6 percent of the vote and has pledged to back Frei in the second round.
“The big question is: What happens to Marco Enriquez-Ominami’s votes?” said Fabian Pressacco, a political analyst who expects a tight race. “How many of those votes will go to Frei? I think most of them will.”
Bachelet, who could not run for a second consecutive term under Chile’s constitution, has an impressive 77 percent approval rating but Frei has failed to capitalize on that.
Pinera, who came second at the presidential election in 2005, has long sought to distance himself from Pinochet’s legacy, although some of his advisers worked for the dictator.
He is not expected to make major changes to government policies. His proposal to sell up to 20 percent of state copper giant Codelco is seen as a non-starter because of resistance from unions and lawmakers.
The left is expected to retain a small majority in both houses of Congress, meaning Pinera would have to negotiate with rivals to push through legislation.
Additional reporting by Rodrigo Martinez, Antonio de la Jara, Alvaro Tapia, Aaron Nelsen and Gabriela Donoso; Editing by Bill Trott