Piñera, Guillier to contest runoff in Chile election

SANTIAGO, Chile – Billionaire conservative Sebastian Piñera, who held a commanding lead in Chile's first round of presidential elections, and leftist former TV journalist Alejandro Guillier will contest a runoff next month.

Ex-president Piñera had a 36.6% lead to Guillier's 22.6% with more than 90% of the votes counted after the first round.

"Tonight we have achieved a great electoral result and above all because we have opened the doors which will lead us to better times," Piñera told his triumphant supporters.

Guillier, an independent supported by President Michelle Bachelet's Socialist party, beat off a stiff challenge from an unheralded far-left candidate, Beatriz Sanchez, for the second runoff place.

Piñera, a 67-year-old billionaire who was president from 2010 to 2014, had been the clear favorite going into Sunday's (November 19) first round. The second round is set for December 17.

"The result is very similar to the one we had in 2009, and in 2009 we won the election, and we managed to get our country up and running," said Piñera, who campaigned on reviving an economy that has suffered years of weak growth.

"The result completely reconfigures the Chilean political landscape," University of Santiago analyst Rene Jara told Agence France-Presse after both far-left and far-right candidates polled more strongly than expected among the 8 presidential candidates.

Sanchez, who polled around a million votes as a representative of the anti-austerity Frente Amplio party, had given her party "very strong negotiating power for the second round," said Jara.

Although her party had been reluctant to pledge support for Guillier, "they are obliged to do so because they will not be responsible for a return of Piñera to power."

Analysts said Piñera will be forced to appeal to the far right for support in the second round, after extreme right-candidate Jose Antonio Kast polled strongly, taking 7.9% of the votes.

Voter apathy

Bachelet, who was also Chile's first woman president, hugged and took photographs with female supporters before casting her ballot in Santiago.

"It is important that people come out and vote (for a candidate) because they feel they represent what they want for Chile," she said, predicting a second round.

As he headed to a Santiago polling station, Fernando Aravena, 76, said: "We need change. That's the idea."

Daniel Concha, a 31-year-old psychologist, said it was "very likely" that Piñera would win the election.

Paula Salas, 35, said she voted for Sanchez.

"If she became president, she would do more, because she has less links with the powerful class," Salas said.

Lawyer Cristian Barros cautioned against a Piñera victory being seen as a foregone conclusion.

"There were several former presidential candidates in Chilean history who were considered winners, and I think Piñera should not be given as a winner until the end of the election," said Barros, 37.

Chile's constitution bans consecutive terms for presidents, but re-election after skipping a term is permissible.

Bachelet herself led the conservative South American country – Latin America's fifth-largest economy – from 2006 to 2010 and then was re-elected to replace Piñera in 2014.

Compulsory voting was dropped in 2012. Since then, a growing number of Chile's 14 million eligible voters have decided to stay away from voting booths.

No majority?

Piñera's first presidential victory in 2009 elections signified a break from the center-left politics that had reigned in Chile since democracy was restored with the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990.

But a Piñera comeback is not seen as a rejection of the overall economic and social model erected in the Bachelet years, during which Chile posted annual growth of 1.8 percent and passed tax and labor reforms, as well as introduced free education and the right to abortion.

"Chileans don't want to tear down the model, just fix its structure," said political analyst Mauricio Morales of Talca University.

Piñera has promised modifications to Bachelet's reforms, and vowed to have Chile join the club of developed nations within 8 years.

His effectiveness, though, could be hobbled by a shortfall in legislative support.

"He is not going to have a majority in Congress," predicted analyst Marta Lagos, founder of Latinobarometro and MORI Chile.

Sunday's elections also included legislative elections for 155 congressional seats and half the Senate.

The right was set to increase its share of the seats, but not by enough to have the majority in either chamber.It is the first poll in the country's history that includes expatriate citizens. – Rappler.com