Chileans head to polls with Bachelet poised to win

Chileans head to polls with Bachelet poised to win

SANTIAGO - Chileans head to the polls Sunday to choose a new president from nine candidates, with Socialist Michelle Bachelet and her reform platform favoured to win.

Bachelet holds a commanding lead, with opinion polls showing the ex-president is close to the 50 per cent needed to win in the first round, even among the crowded field.

"We have to win broadly, we're in this game for the first round, because we have so much to do," Bachelet said Thursday night in her final campaign event.

A pediatrician who was Chile's first woman president from 2006 to 2010, Bachelet is supported by a "New Majority" alliance of socialists, Christian Democrats and communists.

More than 13 million Chileans are eligible to vote when polls open at 8:00 am (1100 GMT), and the election marks the debut of voluntary voting, after a system where registration was optional but those registered were required to vote.

Outgoing President Sebastian Pinera made a fervent call for turnout.

"I ask people to go vote, to motivate and encourage family members, coworkers and neighbours to do the same," said the president, who will hand over power on March 11.

A 'new cycle'

Although Chile has enjoyed economic success in recent years, Bachelet has pledged to bring a "new cycle" of reforms to reverse the country's wide income gap.

Chile has the best GDP per capita in Latin America - US$22,362 (S$28,000) based on purchasing power parity - but half of the nation's 17 million people make less than US$500 per month.

Bachelet's proposals seek to reform the Chilean political and economic model, a legacy of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1990.

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