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Bachelet clear favorite after Chile first round vote

FRONTRUNNER. Former president Michelle Bachelet (L), delivers a speech in the San Ramon neighborhood in Santiago, Chile, 18 November 2013. EPA/Mario Ruiz

FRONTRUNNER. Former president Michelle Bachelet (L), delivers a speech in the San Ramon neighborhood in Santiago, Chile, 18 November 2013.

EPA/Mario Ruiz

SANTIAGO, Chile – Socialist champion Michelle Bachelet will head in to the second round of Chile's presidential race as clear favorite but with too thin a legislative majority to guarantee planned constitutional reforms.

Bachelet was Chile's first female president between 2006 and 2010 and, having comfortably won Sunday's (November 17) first round of voting, is now on course to return to office after the December 15 runoff.

But her "New Majority" alliance of socialists, Christian Democrats and communists was projected Monday to take only 68 of 120 seats in the lower chamber of the legislature and 21 of 38 in the Senate.

While this should be enough to embark on her promised program of social reform, it does not lock in the three-fifths majority she would need to amend the constitution and electoral law.

With all but a tiny fraction of first round votes counted, 62-year-old Bachelet had won 46.67% of the vote against only 25% for her conservative rival, 60-year-old Evelyn Matthei.

"We are going to go from one win to the next: first the party primary; then yesterday's first round; and now on to December," she said..

In another first for Chile, the result ensured a head-to-head run-off between two women. Bachelet was constitutionally forbidden from running for a second consecutive mandate in 2010.

Opinion polls had long predicted victory for Bachelet, a pediatrician by training who was tortured under Chile's former military dictatorship and who left office with an 84% approval rating.

Her position was so strong going into the vote that some were surprised she did not win an outright majority in the first round, although the candidate herself did not admit to any disappointment.

"We knew that it would be tough to win on the first round, we worked really hard, and we almost did it," Bachelet told supporters.

"We did win tonight, and we are going to work hard to win comfortably in December."

Matthei, who was chosen as the right's flag-bearer late in the day but nevertheless beat expectations and the opinion polls with a losing but credible performance, put on a brave face.

"We will win on the second round," she declared to supporters at her campaign headquarters.

Barring an electoral earthquake, that is not going to happen, but political experts gave her performance some credit.

"The right won a moral victory," political scientist Marcelo Mella told Agence France-Presse, arguing that Matthei's ability to rally a cohesive conservative coalition was a partial win in itself.

"It gives them space to operate and allows them to lose with dignity in December," said academic Cristobal Bellolio.

Bachelet, who left Chile to take up a high-profile United Nations post after leaving office, has promised an ambitious program of social reforms in the first 100 days of her new term.

She plans to revise Chile's 1980 constitution, which was in part inherited from Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 military dictatorship.

And she has vowed to increase corporate tax rates in order to fund better schools, hospitals and public services.

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 (370 euros) per month.

Bachelet also plans to bring Chile in line with a wave of social liberalism sweeping once conservative Latin America, aiming to legalize abortion and start a debate on same-sex marriage.

Matthei's program envisages continuity with the administration of outgoing president Sebastian Pinera, with a tougher stance against tax evasion and a better distribution of national resources. – Rappler.com