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Chile's political parties to be challenged by millions of new voters in Sunday's elections

Millions of Chileans are voting Sunday for the first time in their lives in nationwide municipal elections that could set the stage for next year's presidential race.

The timing is key. The vote tests where the heart of the electorate lies just weeks before the campaign for Chile's presidency formally begins. Any would-be candidates have to give up their political posts a year ahead of the Nov. 17, 2013 vote.

The nation has been roiled by more than a year of mass protests over education and environmental policies that brought millions of young demonstrators into the streets, and only about a third of voters approve of the job that conservative President Sebastian Pinera has done since taking office in 2010.

But polls say there's even less support for remnants of the center-left Concertation coalition that governed Chile for 20 years after democracy was restored in 1990, ending the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Many new voters are part of a younger generation whose huge street protests fed hopes that expanding the electorate would lead to profound changes in Chile's political establishment. But that appears less likely now, pollsters said ahead of the vote. After many tumultuous months when activists took over streets, schools and public buildings, choking on tear gas but failing to get Congress to adopt their demands, their faith in the democratic process has waned.

Polls by the Center for Public Studies suggest more than 40 percent of voters would stay home Sunday, compared to 32 percent in the last municipal elections.

That lack of enthusiasm for Chile's main political forces fed uncertainty ahead of the elections for 354 mayors offices and 3,224 local council seats, which are currently divided evenly between left and right.

There is also uncertainty because of changes in voting rules that have swelled the number of registered voters to 13.4 million from 8.1 million while ending penalties for not voting.

Under the old rules, registering to vote was optional, but once enrolled people faced fines of up to $150 for not voting. That discouraged many from signing up, giving a disproportionate say to an ever-smaller group of aging voters. Increasingly, even they were staying home.

Now, voting is optional but every adult member of the population of 17 million is registered automatically at age 18.

Sunday's most closely watched race was in Chile's capital, Santiago. Mayor Pablo Zalaquett of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union party, who personally authorized police crackdowns when protests turned violent, faced Carolina Toha, who courted students after serving as spokeswoman for the previous president, socialist Michelle Bachelet.

Chile's electorate had become increasingly conservative by the 2009 election, after two decades of favoring the center-left coalition that was in power since the end of the Pinochet's dictatorship. The general seized power in 1973 in a bloody coup against Marxist President Salvador Allende, who killed himself rather than surrender.

A generation gap has grown between older Chileans and new voters, who have the potential to shake things up — if they go to the polls.

Julieta Aguilar dragged her 18-year-old daughter, Carla Rojas, to an information booth this week to learn where the teenager should vote Sunday.

"Young people are disaffected, nothing attracts them. I, on the other hand, vote in Conchali (a working-class Santiago neighborhood), and I'll keep voting. I'm a Pinochetista and I'll keep being one because they didn't prove anything against him," Aguilar declared.

"I'm going to vote for Allende," her daughter retorted, prompting her mother to sigh and say, "I don't understand this girl."

There are candidates with Allende connections in Sunday's races: Maria Fernandez Allende, the granddaughter of the late president, ran for mayor in the Santiago-area municipality of Nunoa. Carolina Toha's father, Jose Toja, was Allende's vice president, and died from torture after being arrested defending the palace.

But Rojas doesn't live in either of these candidates' districts, and said she wasn't sure she would bother to vote.

That feeling was seconded by another woman in line at the information booth, Viviana Cordova. She's 28, and said she was not motivated to vote: "Because everything stays the same. The poor stay the same and nothing changes."

High school student protest leader Eloisa Gonzalez encouraged this malaise Friday, urging a boycott of the elections because the government hasn't accepted demonstrators' key demands such as an end to Pinochet-era rules that left most public schools underfunded and neglected. The students want the national government to guarantee free and equal education, and tax the rich far more to keep schools well-funded.

The lack of enthusiasm on the left is a major reason why Marta Lagos, who directs the Latinobarometro survey, predicts Pinera's government won't be punished Sunday. Her surveys suggest the most committed new voters are from the more conservative middle and upper classes.

"We're in a period in which politics has been largely discredited. There's a tremendous lack of interest in the electorate. You can see it in the campaigns; the people are not motivated," Lagos said.

The great national issues have been absent from most of the municipal campaigns, which have focused instead on the popularity and effectiveness of individual politicians.

But Mauricio Morales, a political scientist at the Universidad Diego Portales, said that in key cities, "the government could come out of this election weakened."

As for the left, Morales predicted that more centrist parties would emerge stronger, "isolating a bit those who want to push leftward the agenda of Bachelet."

The popular Bachelet, who couldn't compete in the 2010 presidential election because Chilean law bars consecutive terms for that office, is widely expected to run again for the presidency in next year's vote.

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Associated Press writer Federico Quilodran reported this story in Santiago and Michael Warren reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.