By Simon Gardner and Alonso Soto
SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera led Chile’s presidential vote and on Monday was seen as the favorite to win a run-off and lead a political shift in Latin America’s model economy after 20 years of leftist rule.
Pinera, an airline magnate who ranks No. 701 on Forbes’ global rich list, won 44 percent in Sunday’s voting, shy of the more than 50 percent needed for an outright victory, according to nearly complete official results.
It was the first time in decades a rightist has taken the most votes in a presidential race in Chile, a copper-mining powerhouse and a major exporter of fruit, wine and salmon.
On January 17, Pinera faces a second round against former President Eduardo Frei, who won only 29.6 percent of the vote even though his coalition-mate, outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, is highly popular.
If Pinera wins in January, he is not expected to dramatically overhaul the prudent fiscal policies that the center-left has applied for two decades, making Chile a regional beacon of stability.
According to the Human Development Index, which measures education, health, income and other factors, Chile’s 16 million people have the highest standard of living in Latin America.
Both Frei and Pinera are now going after the supporters of independent Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who split the left after defecting from the ruling coalition and missed the run-off by finishing third with 20 percent of the vote.
“For all those who want change you will find that real change in our project,” Pinera told a local television channel on Monday. “We will adopt many of Marco’s proposals.”
Pinera’s first-place finish may have been less about his platform — including pledges of 6 percent economic growth and corporate tax breaks — and more about the fractured condition of the long-ruling leftist coalition, the Concertacion.
Many voters believe the left has not done enough to distribute billions of dollars in copper earnings through social programs and to improve education and healthcare, mostly for the growing middle class.
Frei called on Enriquez-Ominami’s supporters to back him, but the 36-year-old former film producer, whose guerrilla leader father was killed under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, said he would not endorse any candidate in the run-off.
In the second round, some of his supporters may continue to reject the Concertacion by voting for Pinera, analysts say.
The bicameral Congress was closely divided between the center-left coalition and the rightist bloc with no clear majority, according to official results and calculations by local media.
Pinera, 60, is the first candidate to break a voter stigma against rightists after the 1973-90 dictatorship of Pinochet, when about 3,000 leftists and dissidents were killed and thousands more were tortured.
Sunday’s presidential vote was the first since Pinochet died in 2006, and the youngest voters were born after the dictatorship ended.
“After 20 years in power the Concertacion (leftist coalition) has not been able to evolve. I’m tired of the same old faces,” said Beto Garcia, a 42-year-old computer engineer who voted for the ruling coalition in the last election. “I want to give Pinera a shot, maybe he can do it better.”
A Pinera victory in January would put Chile somewhat out of step with the rest of the region, where leftist leaders dominate in most countries except Colombia, Panama, Mexico and Peru.
Pinera, who piloted his own helicopter to remote settlements during the campaign, plans to use job subsidies to lure investment if elected.
Chilean stocks are seen rallying if he wins. But his plans for strong economic growth rely on foreign investment rebounding and an uninterrupted recovery from Chile’s first recession in a decade.
Frei, 67, a civil engineer whose 1994-2000 presidency was rocked by recession amid the Asian financial crisis, has pledged to continue the social programs of Bachelet.