A strong showing by the left has thrown Chile's presidential race wide open and left billionaire Sebastián Piñera with a fight on his hands to secure victory in a runoff.
Centre-right former president Piñera emerged from the first round in front as expected, albeit with a much lower than anticipated 36.6 percent, as Chileans voted on Sunday to choose a successor to Socialist President Michelle Bachelet.
Piñera, 67, faces Bachelet's candidate Alejandro Guillier, a 64-year-old former TV news anchor and senator, in the second round on December 17. But the big winner was new radical left party Frente Amplio (Broad Front), and its leader Beatriz Sánchez, who is set to play a key role in the second round even though Guillier pipped her to the runoff spot by just 160,000 votes.
Sánchez's emergence is "the biggest shock that Chilean politics has had since the return of democracy in 1990," analyst Mauricio Morales from the University of Talca told AFP.
"While polls had pointed to her gaining 13 percent of the vote, her strong outturn of 20.3 percent could mean that a larger than expected number of votes go to Mr. Guillier in the second round," Analysts Capital Economics said in a note.
Santiago Stock Exchange's IPSA index was down 4.5 percent shortly after opening Monday on news of market-friendly Piñera's weaker than expected showing.
The billionaire's Chile Vamos (Let’s go Chile) coalition performed weakly in the parallel parliamentary elections, falling short of a majority, which analysts said could hinder his economic agenda.
Piñera's promised market-friendly reforms looked less likely, particularly his plans to lower the corporate tax rate – which Bachelet has just raised –and cut red tape in the mining sector, Capital Economics said.
Polls way off
Opinion polls taken before Sánchez's strong showing showed Piñera would comfortably win a runoff against Guillier, who polled 22.7 percent of the vote. While Piñera has a big lead, he had been expected to poll up to 43 percent in the first round.
Analysts said Piñera may even be forced to appeal to the far right for support in the second round, after extreme right-candidate Jose Antonio Kast polled strongly, taking 7.9 percent of the votes.
"Piñera came out with eight or nine points below what was expected and this is an ingredient that provides drama and uncertainty to the second round," analyst Marcelo Mella of the University of Santiago told AFP. "The key will be what the contingent who voted for Beatriz Sánchez will do."
Right-wing Senator Andres Allamand said Sánchez's emergence had changed the landscape of Chilean politics, adding a third force to the traditional coalitions of the left and right. "It's a political event of great magnitude," he said.
Sánchez, 46, a seasoned journalist who entered politics only in March, polled more than 1.3 million votes as a representative of the anti-austerity Frente Amplio party. The party also boosted its representation in Congress, surging from three to 20 seats.
"The left-wing populist Frente Amplio has enough seats to be a nuisance in Congress. This could ultimately mean that some of Mr. Piñera's reforms are diluted," said Capital Economics.
Mirroring the rise of similar radical parties in Spain and Greece, the new party has drawn together leftist movements, student leaders and disenchanted former Bachelet supporters.
She rounded on the pollsters in a speech to supporters late Sunday, saying they had failed to provide a true picture of her party's public support.
Jointly, the six leftist candidates in the presidential race polled 3.6 million votes between them, while the two right-wing candidates took just 2.9 million votes.
After voting casting his vote, Piñera declared that when a new president takes office in March, "we will need more than ever the unity of all Chileans, faith and hope to get up and kick-start our country."
Guillier, a 64-year-old former journalist, campaigned on promises to continue Bachelet's plan to increase corporate taxes to partly pay for an education overhaul, reform the Constitution and improve the pension and healthcare system. He also called for diversifying Chile's resources and developing alternative sources of energy to lower investment costs.
"The sum of those who are for changes is more than that of those who want to go backwards, and that already gives us strength for the second round," Guillier said after casting his ballot.
The runoff vote will take place on Sunday, December 17.