December 10, 2005

Chileans set to vote for continuity on Sunday

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chileans vote on Sunday in
presidential and congressional elections that are expected to
propel a woman into the presidency for the first time and hand
the center-left coalition a fourth term to lead Latin America's
star economy.

Front-runner Michelle Bachelet, a socialist who was
tortured during the country's military dictatorship, is
expected to continue the successful mix of free-market
economics and leftist social reforms of popular President
Ricardo Lagos, who cannot run again.

Bachelet, a former defense minister, is not anticipated to
get the more than 50 percent of the vote needed to win in the
first round against two candidates from the right-wing.

She is expected to come out victorious in a run-off on
January 15, although that race may be tight.

"I hope we'll have a democratic 'fiesta' ... Now it's up to
you. We want to see signs of a solid democracy with high
participation," Lagos told Chileans on the eve of elections.

The Center of Contemporary Reality Studies (CERC), a
polling firm, predicted this week that Bachelet would win 46
percent of the valid votes cast on Sunday.

She is trailed by billionaire and former senator Sebastian
Pinera and former Santiago mayor Joaquin Lavin, who represent
the moderate center and conservative wings of Chile's divided
rightist opposition.

Chile is a model of political and economic stability in
Latin America, with impressive modern infrastructure, the
lowest corruption level and one of the lowest poverty indices.

Lagos is leaving with his approval rating at 60 percent,
and with the economy booming thanks to record high prices for
copper, the country's main export, and strong demand for other
products such as wood pulp, wine, salmon and fertilizer.

Bachelet's Concertacion bloc grew out of the opposition to
the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship and has been in
power ever since the military regime ended.

While her social policies are more liberal than Chile's
conservative elite, business leaders trust Bachelet will stick
to the ruling coalition's economic program including fiscal
discipline and trade pacts with countries all over the world.

Lavin, who almost won the presidency in a close race with
Lagos six years ago, and Pinera, have both attacked the ruling
coalition on weak spots such as rising crime and stubbornly
high rates of unemployment.


CERC forecast Pinera, who promises to create 1 million jobs
if he wins, would get 25 percent of the valid ballots. That
would send him to the second round with Bachelet, where both
will fight for backing from moderates.

Lavin, who made the fight against crime a key campaign
issue, is seen getting about 21 percent while leftist Tomas
Hirsch could get 7 percent.

Bachelet will probably have firm control of Congress, where
20 of 38 senators and all 120 members of the lower house will
be elected on Sunday.

Polls show the ruling coalition will win a majority in the
Senate, where it is currently tied, and will expand its current
majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

Chile still has an alarming divide between rich and poor, a
problem all four candidates promised to fix.

Bachelet has pledged a complete overhaul of Chile's private
pension system, which is considered a model around the world,
but is criticized here for not covering enough people and for
the high fees charged to pension account holders.

Some 8.2 million people are registered to vote and 90
percent of those are expected to turn out on Sunday. Voting is
compulsory for registered voters so those who do not like the
choices leave their ballot blank or spoil it by scribbling on
it or marking more than one candidate.

Another 2.5 million voting-age Chileans are not registered.

(Additional reporting by Monica Vargas)