Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet waves before casting… (Victor R. Caivano / Associated…)
SANTIAGO, Chile — Buoyed by personal popularity and her promise to rewrite Chile's Constitution, Michelle Bachelet surged to the top in Sunday's first round of voting to elect a new president, but fell short of enough votes to avoid a runoff.
With nearly all ballots counted, Bachelet, a pediatrician and former president, was far ahead of eight other candidates, but, at 47%, was below the simple majority needed for an outright victory. In a distant second place was economist Evelyn Matthei, a former labor minister in President Sebastian Pinera's government.
Bachelet and Matthei will face off in an election Dec. 15.
Bachelet was president from 2006 through 2010 and left office with sky-high approval ratings. She was heavily favored to win the first round of voting.
The 62-year-old has remained enormously popular after leaving office; she has been the United Nations' special ambassador for women's issues. Her strong showing also demonstrated Chileans' desire for more social programs and equality in an economy that is one of the hemisphere's most prosperous, analysts said.
Pinera will leave office with Chile boasting South America's lowest unemployment rate, 5%. The economy has expanded by an average 5% annually since he took office. But the multimillionaire businessman is personally unpopular, which has not helped Matthei, his coalition nominee.
"The majority of voters don't want a right-winger," said 44-year-old designer Francisco Mallea, who had just cast a vote in the historic city center of Santiago, the capital. "We know that will only perpetuate social injustice."
Political science professor Patricio Navia of Diego Portales University in Santiago said that a majority of Chileans believe the country is better off than when Pinera took office but "don't see him as reflecting Chile's diversity."
"People perceive Pinera as governing for the wealthy, not all Chileans, and that the economic progress has been unevenly distributed," Navia said. "That's despite the fact he expanded the social safety net to include six months of maternity leave for women."
During the campaign, Bachelet promised to push for a new constitution and do away with an anti-terrorism law put into effect under the late dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet that gives police arbitrary power to detain suspects for three days. She has also promised to give indigenous communities greater say in new laws.
Chile recently marked the 40th anniversary of a military coup that saw the installation of Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship. During that period, 3,000 political dissidents were killed or disappeared and 40,000 killed, detained or tortured, including Bachelet and her late father, a former air force general.
The dictatorship has been a subtext in the campaign, as Bachelet's main rival Matthei is also the daughter of an air force general who was a member of Pinochet's junta.
Chile has seen widespread demonstrations and strikes in recent months, including marches by indigenous groups seeking the return of ancestral land and protesting what they claim has been discriminatory use of the anti-terrorism law against them. Students and teachers have marched for education reform.
Matthei, 60, promised new economic measures and tax laws to create 600,000 jobs. But her candidacy has been hobbled by the fact that she is seen as her party's third choice, political scientist Navia said.
After winning the Democratic Union primary race in July, Pablo Longueira was forced to drop out for health reasons. Earlier, Laurence Golborne, a former mining minister and who was then a leading contender for the party's nomination, was forced to drop out after two public scandals.
Special correspondents Gutierrez and Kraul reported from Santiago and Bogota, respectively. Maryrose Fison contributed to this report.