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Bachelet tops Chile president vote; faces runoff

By LUIS ANDRES HENAO

The Associated Press

SANTIAGO, Chile —

Michelle Bachelet won nearly twice as many votes as her closest rival in Chile’s presidential election Sunday, but she fell short of the outright majority needed to avoid a Dec. 15 runoff.

With nearly all votes counted, the moderate socialist Bachelet had nearly 47 percent, to 25 percent for conservative Evelyn Matthei. Seven other candidates trailed far behind.

Bachelet predicted she would win big in the second round and push forward major social reforms.

“We’re going to have a decisive and strong victory that backs up the transformation program that we have been building,” she said.

Matthei’s campaign celebrated getting another try at Bachelet, this time in a one-on-one race.

“Going into a second round is certainly a triumph,” an exultant Matthei told supporters.

Bachelet, 62, left office with an 84 percent approval rating after her 2006-10 presidency despite failing then to bring about major changes in society. This time, she has taken up the cause of protesters, vowing to revamp the constitution, raise corporate taxes to fund an education overhaul and reduce the wealth gap.

But Bachelet’s center-left New Majority coalition failed Sunday to win the super-majorities in Congress needed to make those changes.

Matthei, 60, an outspoken former labor minister, says Chile must continue business-friendly policies she credited for fast growth and low unemployment under center-right President Sebastian Pinera. She favors funding programs through improved economic growth, not by raising taxes.

Bachelet and Matthei were childhood friends and neighbors, but found themselves on opposite sides after Chile’s 1973 military coup, when Matthei’s father ran the military school where Gen. Alberto Bachelet was tortured to death for remaining loyal to ousted President Salvador Allende.

Both families have said Gen. Matthei had no direct involvement in Bachelet’s father’s death and the two women have remained cordial over the years while they rose through political ranks on the right and left.

Chile is the world’s top copper producer, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and stable democracy are the envy of Latin America. But millions of Chileans have taken to the streets in recent years, venting frustration over the huge gap between rich and poor and the country’s chronically underfunded education system.

Many voters blame free-market policies imposed during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship for keeping wealth and power in very few hands. He sold off water services, undid land reforms, privatized pensions, cut wages and slashed trade barriers. Chile’s schools also were free before Pinochet pushed privatization and ended central control and funding of primary and secondary schools.

“I’m voting for the first time in my life,” said Alvaro Torres, a 32-year-old warehouse worker casting his ballot at a school in the wealthy Santiago neighborhood of Las Condes. “I voted for Bachelet because she represents change. I hope change comes, especially in education.”

“I voted for Evelyn Matthei because this is an historic moment and we need someone like her,” said Norma Sunkel, a 64-year-old sociologist. “I hope that she’ll force a runoff, but I have to admit that it’s very hard that she’ll win the presidency.”

This was Chile’s first election after making voter registration automatic, increasing the rolls from 8.2 million to 13.5 million. But the new system also eliminated penalties for not voting. Pinera said late Sunday that he was sorry turnout was so low, with 44 percent of registered voters staying at home.

With all 120 seats in the lower House of Congress and 20 of 38 Senate seats at stake, the low turnout probably didn’t help Bachelet’s efforts to gain super-majorities for her New Majority coalition. Under electoral rules imposed by Pinochet to frustrate change, the losing party gets half the seats in each region if the winning party fails to secure more than two-thirds of the votes.

The dictatorship-era rules also require voting majorities in Congress of 57 percent for educational reform, 60 percent for electoral reform and nearly 67 percent for constitutional changes. But with most of the votes counted, Bachelet’s coalition had 51 percent in the Senate and 48 percent in the lower chamber.

“You almost feel sorry for her because she’s going to be stuck between the future and the past,” said Peter Siavelis, a political science professor at Wake Forest University and author of “Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition.”

“There all these demands in the streets for constitutional reform, but she’s facing a Congress that’s going to be elected by the binominal elections system,” Siavelis said. “There’s not going to be a majority there. So the influence of the dictatorship is going to impact on her reforms.”

___

Associated Press writer Eva Vergara contributed to this report.

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