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Chile votes with Bachelet tipped to return to presidency

Chileans voted Sunday in a presidential run-off election. Socialist former president Michelle Bachelet wants to reduce Chile's rich-poor gap, especially in education. Conservative Evelyn Matthei favors business.

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Runoff presidential election in Chile

Surveys widely predict that the moderate Socialist Bachelet (right in picture) will emerge the winner, after pledging in her campaign to initiate major social reforms, rescind hefty education fees and rewrite Chile's military-era constitution. More than 13 million Chileans were eligible to vote.

Polls closed at 7pm local time (22.00 UTC) with the first results expected two hours later.

Matthei (left), an economist and former labor minister, cited fast growth under outgoing center-right President Sebastian Pinera during her campaign. She also opposes gay marriage, abortion and higher taxes.

Consecutive presidential terms are not allowed under Chilean law.

After voting in her Santiago neighborhood of La Reina during the morning, Bachelet said: "This is an important day and I hope people can come and participate and through their vote give a clear expression of the kind of Chile where they want to continue to live" Bachelet said. "The changes we need can't be produced through skepticism," she added.

"Our proposal basically targets the middle class, which is the backbone of our country," Matthei said after voting Sunday. "Their daily effort has to be met with help from the State."

Childhood acquaintances

Both women know each other from childhood. Their fathers were generals in the Chilean air force whose paths separated during the coup that toppled Socialist president Salvadore Allende in 1973.

Mathei's father took part in the dictatorship imposed by General Augusto Pinochet until 1990. Bachelet's father died after torture. She herself was imprisoned and forced into exile. Bachelet, a trained pediatrician, was Chile's first woman president from 2006 until 2010.

Although Chile rides on a copper export boom and boasts the highest average per-capita income in Latin America, half of Chile's 17-million-population earn less than $500 (364 euros) per month.

Millions of Chileans, especially students, have protested in recent years against Pinochet-era privatizations of water supplies and pensions. Universities, and even some high schools in the country currently charge fees.

Bachelet has promised to raise corporate taxes to help fund an education overhaul, including free post-secondary education.

Two-thirds for Bachelet?

For the first time in Chile, voting is voluntary in Sunday's election.

In the November 17 first round, only 49 percent actually voted. Matthei got only 25 percent, trailing Bachelet who received 47 percent support.

In the 120-seat lower house of parliament, Bachelet's center-left coalition obtained 67 places in a legislative election last month. In the upper Senate it holds 21 of 38 seats.

ipj/msh (AP, dpa, AFP)

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