Businessman Sebastian Piñera, who was Chile's president from 2010 to 2014, appeared headed for a victory in presidential elections Sunday, though a runoff was expected with the second-place finisher, according to partial returns.
Piñera and the other candidates seemed likely to fall short of the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff Dec. 17. The winner will take office in March.
As of late Sunday, Piñera had 36.6% of votes cast, and former TV news anchor Alejandro Guillier had 22.6%. In third place was radio and television journalist Beatriz Sánchez, with 20.3%, according to preliminary returns.
Piñera campaigned on promises to boost economic growth, reform the tax code and eliminate unnecessary state spending programs. Voter preference polls have shown him a prohibitive favorite to win the country's highest office for a second time.
"I know my compatriots very well; I know that we will choose the right path, one that will lead us to better times," Piñera said, exuding confidence after voting Sunday morning at a school in downtown Santiago, Chile's capital.
His confidence and front-runner status stemmed partly from the erosion of support for outgoing President Michelle Bachelet's center-left government. The main reason was an anemic economy growing at just 2% in recent years, due partly to lower prices of commodities, including copper, Chile's main export.
Several Bachelet social reforms were met with strong opposition from the business community.
"There was a certain gap between President Bachelet's discourse of promising big changes, with what Chileans want," said Mireya Dávila, a political science professor at the University of Chile. "They want changes but not radical changes."
Isidora Undurraga, a Chilean entrepreneur and a precinct election official in Santiago, said: "Businessmen felt threatened during Bachelet's government. They saw a program that didn't match with theirs."
Another issue was a corruption scandal that involved alleged influence-peddling by Bachelet's daughter-in-law, Natalia Compagnon. She has been charged with malfeasance in her real estate dealings, but her case has not yet gone to trial.
Piñera's center-right campaign also was boosted by infighting in the center-left coalition and its failure to unite behind a single candidate. Guiller competed against candidates Sanchez and Carolina Goic for the support of left-leaning voters.
Piñera also promised to be tough on crime, particularly drug trafficking. He has linked these issues with the immigration wave toward Chile by saying that "we will close our borders to those who come to commit crimes."
Roman Catholic Bishop Cristián Contreras of Melipilla, a city 44 miles southwest of Santiago, said in a telephone interview after voting Sunday that that one of the election's biggest issues was "drug trafficking and the micro-trafficking."