Chile's presidential race tightens dramatically ahead

Chile's presidential race has tightened dramatically ahead of the country's Jan. 15 election runoff, with multimillionaire conservative Sebastian Pinera gaining ground on socialist front-runner Michelle Bachelet. Bachelet, a former pediatrician and member of outgoing President Ricardo Lagos' center-left coalition, received 46 percent of the vote in the country's Dec. 11 election but fell short of an absolute majority, which would have avoided a runoff.

Pinera, one of Chile's richest men and the owner of companies ranging from finance and banking to Chile's largest airline and a television channel, placed a surprise second, with 25.4 percent. Pinera has narrowed the gap in the last two weeks, according to the only opinion poll since the election.

In the survey by newspaper El Mecurio and polling firm Opina, Bachelet was favored by 42.5 percent of voters polled, with Pinera at 37.5 percent. With a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points, the Dec. 18 survey put the two in a statistical tie.

Bachelet and Pinera have toured the country, leading rallies and hitting the radio airwaves in a fierce competition for other candidates' first-round votes. Pinera scored the first victory on election night, when he won the endorsement of third-place finisher and fellow conservative Joaquin Lavin, who received 23.5 percent of the vote.

Bachelet, for her part, has won the backing of Chile's small Communist Party, part of a coalition that supported Tomas Hirsch, who placed a distant fourth with 5.4 percent. "We had a drop after the first round, but we are recovering with great strength," Alejandro Foxley, a key campaign aide to Bachelet, said Wednesday.

Bachelet's postelection slip is the result of "a very poor campaign," said political scientist and election analyst Ricardo Israel. "They ran an overconfident campaign, as if they had victory assured," Israel said. "The normal thing for a candidate is to meet with voters, accept all the media interviews," he added. "But she dodged interviews and her aides even turned down people who wanted to join the campaign."

Pinera, on the other hand, "was a much better candidate than expected," Israel said. "He succeeded, for example, in avoiding having his fortune to become a campaign issue."

Pinera's wealth, estimated at more than US$1 billion (Ђ850 million), was not a major issue in the campaign except for some jabs from rivals in the first round. He has sold some of his stock and vowed to put his assets in a blind trust if elected.

But though Pinera has narrowed the gap, Israel said the race was still Bachelet's to lose. "All the information we have now indicates she's still ahead by about two percentage points," he said. Bachelet aims to become Chile's first female president and extend the rule of the center-left coalition that has governed Chile since the end of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990.

The narrowing race appears to worry the government of President Lagos, who is leaving power with a 70 percent approval rate but is constitutionally prohibited from seeking re-election. The outgoing president has made several recent public appearances on Bachelet's behalf, reports the AP. I.L.

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