A Socialist physician once imprisoned by Chile's former military dictatorship held a commanding lead in the country's presidential election yesterday, but fell short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff with a right-wing rival. Michelle Bachelet had 46 percent of the vote, election officials said after counting 96 percent of the ballots. Her closest rival, Sebastiбn Piсera, a former senator who is one of Chile's wealthiest men, trailed with 25 percent of the vote, according to returns announced by the government.
If she wins in the runoff against Piсera on Jan. 15, Bachelet would be Chile's first female leader and Latin America's fourth, representing the popular center-left coalition in power since 1990. President Ricardo Lagos, who is constitutionally limited to one term, enjoys a more than 70 percent approval rating, and few Chileans seem in the mood for radical change.
Bachelet invited her supporters ''to work so that in January we can win."''Our results could have been better today, but perhaps our message did not get through to voters," she said. ''But that's a good reason for us to work harder. We are going to win in second round." The three main candidates all support the free market policies that have built one of the most prosperous economies in Latin America. The election confirmed that Chileans have put General Augusto Pinochet's legacy behind them. The 90-year-old former dictator played no role in the campaign. He was not even able to cast a vote yesterday, as he remained under house arrest, facing human rights and corruption charges.
The 8.2 million registered voters were also electing one half of the 38-member Senate and all 120 members of the lower house of Congress. Voting is mandatory, but fines are rarely imposed on those who fail to cast ballots.
The third main candidate, the economist Joaquнn Lavнn, set aside the rivalry of the campaign and offered his support to Piсera as yesterday's results became clear.
''This is the time for unity," Lavнn said in a speech at his election headquarters. Addressing Piсera, he added, ''If we do things right, I am sure you will be Chile's next president."
He went to greet Piсera at a downtown hotel, and the two embraced amid applause from hundreds of supporters. Piсera said he and Lavнn will join efforts ''in the challenges we have ahead,” reports the AP. I.L.