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.

Bachelet, a mother of three who is separated from her husband, also wants to raise business taxes in order to offer free university within six years of taking office, answering the demands of a powerful student movement that led massive protests in 2011.

The rest of the pack

Trailing Bachelet by more than 30 points is right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei, a former labour minister and previous deputy and senator for the ultraconservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI).

She was nominated at the last minute after the untimely resignation of ex-minister Pablo Longueira, who won the primary but resigned after being diagnosed with depression.

Matthei, 60, whose extensive political career has not been without controversy, has called for a continuation of the Pinera legacy and said a Bachelet win would represent a move backwards.

"If you ask Chileans if they are better off now than four years ago, I assure the vast majority will answer that it's better now," she said in closing her campaigning.

In an election twist, the two candidates crossed paths decades ago when their families were neighbours at an air base where the two girls would sometimes ride their bikes together.

But their lives took drastically different turns when their fathers, both generals, chose opposite sites after the coup that brought Pinochet to power.

Competing for third place are independent economist Franco Parisi, a surprise candidate who jumped into the political arena less than a year ago, and filmmaker Marco Enriquez Ominami, who in 2009 won 20 per cent of the presidential vote but is not expected to score more than 10 per cent this year.

Lagging behind is ultra-left economist Marcel Claude.

Chileans must also elect the entire lower house of its congress and half of its senate.

The legislative vote will be key to whether Bachelet's ambitious reform plans come to fruition.