Ex-President Pinera leads Chile vote, but faces runoff

November 20, 2017

Former Chilean President Sebastian Pinera celebrates the first official results that place him in first place in the elections, in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. Pinera will likely face presidential candidate for the Nueva Mayoria coalition Alejandro Guillier in a Dec. 17, runoff. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera held a big lead late Sunday in returns from Chile’s presidential election, buoyed by support from Chileans who hope the former president can resuscitate a flagging economy, though he didn’t get enough votes to avoid a runoff.

With just under 92 percent of ballots counted, Pinera had nearly 37 percent of the vote, against almost 23 percent for Sen. Alejandro Guillier, an independent center-left candidate, and 20 percent for Beatriz Sanchez, who ran for the leftist Broad Front coalition. Five other candidates shared the remainder.

Pinera needed to get 50 percent of the votes to win outright. He will face the No. 2 finisher, which seemed likely to be Guillier, in a runoff election Dec. 17. Officials said late Sunday that further results would not come until during the day Monday.

Opinion polls had made the conservative Pinera, 67, a strong favorite going into Sunday’s election.

After struggling with large protests over inequality and education during his 2010-2014 presidency, Pinera ended his term with low popularity ratings. But the economic slump and overall disenchantment with the current center-left government of President Michelle Bachelet gave him a boost in this election.

Chile is the world’s top copper producing country and it has been hurt by a drop-off in international demand and prices for the metal that is the backbone of its economy.

Pinera, a Harvard-educated entrepreneur, has proposed to cut taxes on businesses to promote growth and promises to launch a $14 billion, four-year spending plan that includes fresh investments in infrastructure.

Bachelet was Chile’s most popular president during her first 2006-2010 term, but she is ending her 2014-2018 presidency as the least popular. In addition to economic woes, her image was hurt by a real estate scandal involving her family, though no charges were brought. And many Chileans feel she wavered in her promises of profound social changes in labor and education.

After voting casting his vote, Pinera declared that when a new president takes office in March, “we will need more than ever the unity of all Chileans, faith and hope to get up and kick-start our country.”

Guillier, a 64-year-old former journalist, campaigned on promises to continue Bachelet’s plan to increase corporate taxes to partly pay for an education overhaul, reform the constitution and improve the pension and health care system. He also called for diversifying Chile’s resources and developing alternative sources of energy to lower investment costs.

“The sum of those who are for changes is more than that of those who want to go backwards, and that already gives us strength for the second round,” Guillier said after casting his ballot.

The elections also were choosing 155 members of the lower House of Congress and 23 seats in the Senate.

Update hourly