Chile's Bachelet in final stretch to the presidency

SANTIAGO - Chileans head to the polls Sunday for a run-off vote in which Socialist former president Michelle Bachelet appears likely to easily defeat her conservative rival.

Bachelet's contest with Evelyn Matthei marks the first time in Latin America that a presidential runoff takes place between two women.

"There is a chance Bachelet will get record high support and win with 60 per cent of the vote," said Marta Lagos, who heads public opinion survey firm Latinobarometro Chile.

Bachelet - a pediatrician and Chile's first woman president 2006-2010 - is likely to draw over 66.3 per cent of the vote to Matthei's 33.7, a recent Universidad de Santiago-Ipsos poll found.

The 62-year-old former head of UN Women is well aware that she appears to be coasting toward making history decisively - again.

"I had the honour to be Chile's first woman president, and it will be great honour once again to be the president of every Chilean man and woman," Bachelet told cheering supporters at her closing campaign rally Thursday.

Matthei, 60, an economist and former labour minister, and Bachelet are both the daughters of Air Force generals and knew each other as schoolgirls. As adults, however, their lives took sharply different political paths.

Low turnout feared

More than 13 million Chileans are eligible to vote Sunday, but turnout is the big unknown.

This year's race marks the first time that voting in a presidential election is voluntary in Chile.

In the first round, which resulted with Bachelet winning 47 per cent of the vote to 25 per cent for Matthei, more than 50 per cent of voters did not bother to cast ballots.

Because of the election, shops will be closed on the pre-Christmas weekend.

Both candidates are urging their supporters to get out and vote.

There is nothing in the pre-vote survey "to indicate that lots of people are going to vote," said pollster Lagos.

Voting starts at 8:00 am (1100 GMT) and stretches for 10 hours. Early returns are expected around 2200 GMT.

Plenty at stake for a new Bachelet term

Bachelet has focused on greater social justice in a country that has the highest per capita income of any Latin American country.

She has proposed increasing taxes to raise $8.2 billion for the state coffers. She wants everyone, not just the rich, to have access to free post-secondary education.

Bachelet also hopes to quickly move on sweeping reforms that most Chileans want, which include overhauling the constitution, a legacy of the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Bachelet plans to bring Chile in line with a wave of social liberalism sweeping once conservative Latin America, which include legalizing abortion and opening discussions on same-sex marriage.

In her first term, Bachelet reformed the pension system, improved health and social services, and focused on the well-being of Chile's working class and elderly.

Her presidency coincided with a boom in global demand for copper, Chile's top export.

Matthei, facing what looked like impossible odds, has also talked about improving the lives of Chile's middle class.

She has slammed Bachelet's leftist ideas as "experiments that have failed in other countries."

Sunday's winner takes office March 11 for a term running through 2018.

Chile has the highest GDP per capita in Latin America, $22,362 based on purchasing power parity. But half of its 17 million people make less than $500 per month.

Matthei's programme pledges continuity with the policies of unpopular outgoing president Sebastian Pinera, with a tougher stance against tax evasion.