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Pinera Wins First Round of Chile Election, Faces Runoff

Former Chilean president and billionaire Sebastian Pinera celebrates the first official results that place him first in the elections, in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 19, 2017.

Conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera will face center-left Senator Alejandro Guillier in a runoff for Chile's presidency next month, after placing first by a wide margin in Sunday's first-round election.

Both candidates would keep in place the top copper exporter's longstanding free-market economic model, but Pinera has promised investor-friendly policies to turbocharge growth, while Guillier wants to press on with outgoing President Michelle Bachelet's overhaul of education, health care and pensions.

With 81.75 percent of votes counted, Pinera, a 67-year-old former president and businessman, had clinched 36.67 percent, falling short of the 50 percent needed for an outright victory, Chile's electoral agency Servel said, adding that the remaining votes would not change the overall outcome.

Guillier, a 64-year-old bearded former TV news anchor elected to the Senate in 2013, had 22.64 percent, two points ahead of the third placed candidate, radical leftist Beatriz Sanchez, whose better-than-forecast showing could translate into gains for her party in Congress.

Pinera came in under expectations by pollsters, indicating that the December 17 runoff may be a closely-fought contest.

The last opinion survey by CEP last month had forecast Pinera securing 42 percent of likely votes in the first round, and easily defeating Guillier in the runoff.

"We're going to have a very competitive second round," Pinera's campaign chief Andres Chadwick told journalists as official election results were still coming in on Sunday evening.

Support for Guillier could surge if he can unite his five left-leaning rivals behind him.

Bachelet cannot run again this year because of term limits, and Guillier is one of two candidates her center-left coalition Nueva Mayoria was backing in the first-round.

Guillier faces a sunnier and more polished opponent in Pinera, who oversaw robust economic growth in his 2010-2014 presidential term that overlapped with higher copper prices.

Alejandro Guillier, left, of the Nueva Mayoria coalition celebrates with his wife, Maria Cristina Farga, early results that place him second in the presidential election, in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 19, 2017.
Alejandro Guillier, left, of the Nueva Mayoria coalition celebrates with his wife, Maria Cristina Farga, early results that place him second in the presidential election, in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 19, 2017.

"Today we're going to make a decision that will impact our lives for many decades," Pinera told journalists after voting on Sunday morning. "I know we're going to pick the right path, the one that takes us to better times."

Pinera has vowed to double Chile's economic growth rate, with proposals that include trimming corporate taxes, making state-run miner Codelco more self-sufficient, and tweaking the pension system to include incentives for later

But he must ease fears that he would wipe out gains made in Bachelet's government for students, women and workers – from expanding free education to strengthening unions.

And he will also need to make gains in Congress, narrowly controlled before Sunday's vote by Bachelet's coalition.

Chileans were also voting for all the lower house and half the Senate seats on Sunday, with results expected by Monday.

Should Guillier triumph in the runoff, he has pledged to tackle stubbornly high inequality in one of Latin America's most business-friendly economies. He wants to diversify Chile's dependence on copper, increase access to free higher education and write workers' rights into a new constitution.

"I voted for Guillier because I think we have to continue to provide free education. It's a social right," said unemployed voter Mario Giannetti, 53.

Since its transition to democracy from dictatorship in 1990, Chile has stood out as one of the region's most developed countries. But public debt has grown as lower copper prices hit government revenues in recent years, and Bachelet's critics say she failed to court investments or prioritize economic growth that slowed to an annual average of 1.8 percent.

In a first since the 1990s, credit ratings agencies Fitch and S&P downgraded Chile's debt rating this year.

While investors see Pinera as a safe pair hands for the economy, his previous term was marred by massive student protests seeking an education overhaul. His responses were often seen as out of touch and grassroots groups still oppose him.