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Centre-left party facing challenge from conservative Pinera

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2009-12-13

A conservative billionaire, Sebastian Pinera (pictured), is the frontrunner in first-round Chilean presidential elections on Sunday, challenging the center-left ruling coalition's 20-year hold on power.

AFP- A conservative billionaire is the frontrunner in first-round Chilean presidential elections on Sunday, challenging the center-left ruling coalition's 20-year hold on power.

Sebastian Pinera, 60, whose fortune is put at 1.2 billion dollars by Forbes magazine, has a solid lead over his leftwing rivals, former president Eduardo Frei, 67, and a charismatic former film director, Marco Enriquez-Ominami, according to voter intention surveys.

Should he win, it would mean a return to rightwing rule for Chile -- a prosperous South American nation that is the world's biggest copper producer -- for the first time since the end of General Augusto Pinochet's 1974-1990 military dictatorship.

Current President Michelle Bachelet is barred from seeking re-election to a second, four-year term, despite enjoying skyhigh popularity.

Sunday's elections will also renew Chile's 120-seat Chamber of Deputies and 20 of the 38 members of the Senate.

Numbers offered by pre-election surveys suggested that a second, run-off round would be needed in the presidential race because it looked unlikely that any of the candidates would get more than 50 percent of the ballots.

Pinera is credited with 44-percent support, while Frei, the candidate chosen by the Concertacion coaltion, trails with 31 percent and Enriquez-Ominami, an independent, with 18 percent, according to a Public Studies Center (CERC) survey.

A knockout duel between Pinera and Frei in a second round on January 17 could see Pinera triumph 49 percent to Frei's 32 percent, the CERC poll said.

But in that scenario, Pinera -- who has interests in television, Chile's big airline LAN and a football club -- could have to contend with a Congress filled with many members of the Concertacion leftwing coalition, making legislative passage tricky.

Issues confronting whoever becomes Chile's new president include a diplomatic row with neighboring Peru over alleged espionage, and managing a return to economic growth after a contraction brought on this year by the global crisis.

There are 8.3 million registered voters in Chile, with a bias towards an older electorate because of apathy among the country's youth.

Polling stations are to at 7:00 am (1000 GMT) and close at 4:00 pm (1900 GMT), with first official results expected some three hours later.

Date created : 2009-12-13

  • CHILE

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