SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Michelle Bachelet was the heavy favorite to return to the presidency as Chileans voted Sunday, with supporters hoping she can fulfill promises to reform a dictatorship-era system they say keeps workers poor and indebted to the privileged few.
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.
Bachelet, 62, is a former political prisoner, pediatrician, defense secretary and Socialist Party stalwart who is a centrist at heart.
She left office with sky-high approval ratings after her 2006-10 presidency despite failing then to bring about major changes in society. This time, she has taken up the protesters' cause, vowing to revamp the constitution, raise corporate taxes to fund an education overhaul and reduce the wealth gap.
"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."
Bachelet and her closest rival Sunday, conservative Evelyn Matthei, 60, were childhood friends and daughters of generals who found themselves on opposite sides after Chile's 1973 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.
Some voters complained of long lines, but overall the election went smoothly. Some polling places had a family air, with toddlers waiting in strollers while parents and grandparents in wheelchairs voted.
"I voted for Evelyn Matthei because this is a 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."
The last survey by Chile's top pollster CEP said 47 percent of declared voters backed Bachelet, suggesting she had a good chance at an outright majority to avoid a Dec. 15 runoff. Matthei got 14 percent in the poll, which had a 3 percentage-point error margin. Seven other candidates trailed, although independents Franco Parisi and Marco Enriquez-Ominami were gaining ground on the right and left.
Chile recently adopted a new automatic voter registration system, eliminating the need for people older than 18 to register in person. The change increased the number of registered voters to 13.5 million from 8.2 million while ending penalties for not voting. It also increased uncertainty, with some political analysts saying it could lead to a bigger turnout while others predicted many people would stay at home.
Chileans also were electing 120 members of the lower House of Congress and 20 out of 38 Senate seats.
Unfortunately for Bachelet, her New Majority coalition wouldn't be able to secure more seats unless it won at least two-thirds of the votes in each district.
Under Pinochet's electoral system, which was designed to frustrate change, a simple legislative majority is enough to reform tax laws. But 57 percent is needed for educational reform, 60 percent for electoral reform and nearly 67 percent for constitutional changes.
"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."
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao