SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) – Michelle Bachelet was almost certain to win Sunday's presidential runoff, riding a wave of hope that brought millions of Chileans to the streets in recent years demanding education reform, environmental protection and a reduction of the country's income inequality.
But concerns of a low turnout worried the once and probable future president, who needs a strong mandate to make good on her promises.
"This is an important day and I hope people can come and participate and through their vote give a clear expression of the kind of Chile where they want to continue to live," Bachelet said after voting in her Santiago neighborhood of La Reina. "The changes we need can't be produced through skepticism."
Bachelet, 62, ended her 2006-2010 presidency with 84 percent approval ratings despite failing to achieve any major changes.
This time, activists are vowing to hold her to promises to raise corporate taxes to help fund an education overhaul and even change the dictatorship-era constitution, a difficult goal given congressional opposition.
Many Chileans blame policies imposed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship for keeping wealth and power in few hands. Pinochet effectively ended land reform by selling off the nation's water, and preserved the best educations for elites by ending the central control and funding of public schools.
Polls showed Bachelet's rival, conservative former Finance Minister Evelyn Matthei, was likely to suffer a bruising defeat because of her past support for Pinochet and her ties to outgoing President Sebastian Pinera. The billionaire entrepreneur became Chile's first center-right president since democracy's return, and with just 34 percent support in the latest CEP poll, the most unpopular.
This was Chile's first presidential election after voter registration became automatic, increasing the electorate from 8 million to 13.5 million of the country's nearly 17 million people. But voting became optional with the change, and only 50 percent of voters turned out in the first round, frustrating both the major coalitions.
It also was Chile's first choice between two women, both with long careers in politics. And Bachelet, a pediatrician, and Matthei, an economist, share a dramatic history: Playmates while growing up on a military base, they found themselves on opposite sides of Chile's wide political divide after the 1973 military coup.
Matthei's father became a member of Pinochet's junta while Bachelet's dad was tortured to death for refusing to support the strongman. Bachelet, a moderate Socialist, was imprisoned herself and forced into exile. The two women remained cordial over the years while they rose through the ranks of the right and left.
Matthei, 60, has a direct, unvarnished way of speaking that cost her some support. She says Chile must continue business-friendly policies she credits for fast growth and low unemployment under Pinera. She backed Pinochet in a 1988 referendum on continuing his rule and now opposes changing the Pinochet-era constitution. She's also against gay marriage, abortion and higher taxes.
"Our proposal basically targets the middle class, which is the backbone of our country," Matthei said after voting Sunday. "Their daily effort has to be met with help from the State."
Bachelet is seen as having more charisma and empathy, but her critics say that shouldn't make up for her mistakes.
When a devastating earthquake struck, killing more than 500 people just 11 days before the end of her term, the national emergency office failed to issue a tsunami warning. Many coastal dwellers had figured they were safe, and failed to run to higher ground.
"I want change and I don't like Mrs. Bachelet. She did so many bad things when she was president," said Olga Espinoza, 62, a maid who voted for Matthei. "How many people died in the quake because of her? We're the same age, we have the same zodiac sign but I don't like anything about her."
Chile is the world's top copper producer, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and stable democracy are the envy of Latin America. But many Chileans are insisting that more of the copper wealth be used to fix the underfunded public education system.
"Abroad you often hear that this country has been growing and progressing more than others in Latin America, but it can't be just a matter of growth," Paola Bustamante, a 40-year-old sculptor said after voting for Bachelet. "We need urgent educational reform, improvements to health and I feel Bachelet can fulfill promises of deep changes this time around."