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Ex-President in tight race for return to power in Chile

December 17, 2017

Former Chilean President and current presidential candidate Sebastian Pinera waves before voting during presidential elections runoff in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. Chileans voters will decide Sunday whether to swing the world's top copper-producing country to the right or maintain its center-left path in a fiercely contested presidential runoff election. (AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — A billionaire businessman appeared to be in an unexpectedly tight race for a return to Chile’s presidency on Sunday in a vote that could either swing the world’s top copper-producing country to the right or maintain its center-left path.

Former President Sebastian Pinera easily topped last month’s first round presidential election, but his 36.6 percent vote share fell far short of what polls had projected.

He faces Sen. Alejandro Guillier, a center-left former journalist who got 22.7 percent in the first round and is counting on support from backers of other left-leaning candidates who were eliminated.

Public opinion polls have been banned since November’s first round, so it’s unclear where either candidate stands now.

“It will be the election with the greatest uncertainty in the history of Chile,” said Congressman Pepe Auth, an electoral expert.

The 64-year-old Guillier is backed by outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, but many Chileans have been disillusioned by lagging economic growth under her watch, a problem based largely on lower international prices for copper, which is the backbone of its economy. Many leftists also feel she wavered on her promises of profound social changes in labor and education policies.

Pinera, 68, ended his first term in office in 2014 with low popularity ratings. But he also oversaw annual economic growth of about 5 percent a year.

He proposes slashing taxes on business to revive growth and vows to launch a $14 billion, four-year spending plan that includes fresh investments in infrastructure.

The Harvard-educated entrepreneur may benefit from low turnout; voting was made voluntary rather than mandatory in 2012 in the country of 17 million people.

“I think we’ll win these elections and better times will come for all Chileans,” Pinera said after casting his vote in the Chilean capital.

In recent weeks, Pinera has compared Guillier to Nicolas Maduro, the president of crisis-torn Venezuela. The scare tactic seems to have backfired by rallying support for Guillier from hard left factions who had been cool on him earlier.

Guillier, a former TV anchor, promises to continue Bachelet’s plan to increase corporate taxes to partly finance an education overhaul, reform the constitution and improve the pension and health care system. He also wants to diversify Chile’s copper-dependent economy and develop alternative sources of energy to lower investment costs.

“I think we’re going to win by a tight but clear margin,” Guillier said after casting his vote in his northern desert region of Antofagasta.

During the first round, Beatriz Sanchez of the Broad Front coalition came in third with 20 percent of the vote. She has pledged her support to Guillier.

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Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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