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SANTIAGO, Chile – Michelle Bachelet is almost certain to win Sunday's presidential runoff and return to power on a promise to reduce Chile's huge gap between the rich and poor.
Bachelet, 62, has been riding a wave of hope that brought millions of Chileans to the streets in recent years demanding education reform, greater environmental protection and a reduction of the country's income inequality.
The former political prisoner and pediatrician ended her 2006-10 presidency with high approval ratings despite failing to achieve any major changes. This time, she has promised to raise corporate taxes to help fund an education overhaul and change the dictatorship-era constitution.
Many Chileans blame policies imposed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship for keeping wealth and power in few hands. Among other actions, Pinochet sold off water services, privatized pensions and ended the central control and funding of public schools.
Polls show Bachelet's rival, conservative former Finance Minister Evelyn Matthei, is likely to suffer a bruising defeat because of her perceived links to both Pinochet and unpopular outgoing President Sebastian Pinera, who was the country's first conservative president since the return of democracy.
Bachelet and Matthei, 60, share a dramatic history, as they face each other in the country's first presidential vote between two women.
They were playmates growing up in a military base, but found themselves on opposite sides of Chile's wide political divide after the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power.
While Matthei's father became a member of Pinochet's junta, 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, says Chile must continue business-friendly policies she credits for fast growth and low unemployment under Pinera. The outspoken candidate 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.
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 millions have taken to the streets in recent years demanding more equal distribution of the country's wealth.
Chileans vote from 8 a.m. (1100 GMT) to 6 p.m. (2100 GMT). Results are expected after booths close at 7 p.m. (2200 GMT).
Luis Andres Henao: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao