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Two women face off in Chile presidential run-off vote
Agence France Presse
A woman casts her vote at a polling station during the presidential election in Santiago, December 15, 2013. Chileans REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
A woman casts her vote at a polling station during the presidential election in Santiago, December 15, 2013. Chileans REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
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SANTIAGO: Chileans went to the polls Sunday for a run-off vote between Socialist former President Michelle Bachelet and conservative Evelyn Matthei, an unprecedented race for the top office between two female candidates.

Pre-election surveys give Bachelet, who was president 2006-2010, an overwhelming margin of support over Matthei, an economist and former labor minister.

Voter turnout however is a big unknown. While more than 13 million Chileans are eligible to vote, this year's races mark the first time that voting in a presidential election was voluntary.

In the first round on November 17, which resulted with Bachelet winning 47 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Matthei, more than half of all voters did not bother to cast ballots.

Bachelet, the former head of UN Women, is aware that she appears to be on the brink of making history again.

"I had the honor to be Chile's first woman president, and it will be great honor once again to be the president of every Chilean man and woman," Bachelet told cheering supporters at her closing campaign rally Thursday.

Bachelet could draw up to 66 percent of the vote against 34 percent for Matthei, according to a recent Universidad de Santiago-Ipsos poll.

Because of the election, shops will be closed on the pre-Christmas weekend.

"There is a chance Bachelet will get record high support and win with 60 percent of the vote," said Marta Lagos, who heads public opinion survey firm Latinobarometro Chile.

However there is nothing in the pre-vote survey "to indicate that lots of people are going to vote," said Lagos.

Matthei, 60, and Bachelet, 62, are both the daughters of Air Force generals and knew each other as schoolgirls.

But while Bachelet's father died after being tortured for remaining loyal to leftist president Salvador Allende in the 1973 coup, Matthei's father supported the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Bachelet was also tortured, fled the country, then returned years later to work as a pediatrician and later entered politics.

Voting began at 8:00 am (1100 GMT) and stretches for 10 hours. Early returns are expected around 2200 GMT.

Plenty at stake for a new Bachelet term Bachelet has focused her campaign on greater social justice in a country that has the highest per capita income of any Latin American country.

She has proposed increasing taxes to raise $8.2 billion for the state coffers. She wants everyone, not just the rich, to have access to free post-secondary education.

Bachelet also hopes to carry out sweeping reforms that include overhauling Chile's constitution, a legacy of the Pinochet era.

Bachelet plans to bring Chile in line with a wave of social liberalism sweeping once-conservative Latin America, including by legalizing abortion and opening discussions on same-sex marriage.

In her first term, Bachelet reformed the pension system, improved health and social services, and focused on the well-being of Chile's working class and elderly.

Her presidency coincided with a boom in global demand for copper, Chile's top export.

Matthei, facing what looked like impossible odds, has also talked about improving the lives of Chile's middle class.

She has slammed Bachelet's leftist ideas as "experiments that have failed in other countries."

Sunday's winner takes office March 11 for a term running through 2018.

Chile has the highest GDP per capita in Latin America, $22,362 based on purchasing power parity. But half of its 17 million people make less than $500 per month.

Matthei's program pledges continuity with the policies of unpopular outgoing president Sebastian Pinera, with a tougher stance against tax evasion.

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