SANTIAGO: Chile’s opposition on Sunday was leading with a razor-thin margin in local elections that could deal a disappointment to embattled President Michelle Bachelet by returning conservatives to power.
Seen as a litmus test for her ruling center-left coalition one year before her term ends, with 95.79 percent of the vote counted, a conservative coalition Chile Vamos (Let’s go Chile) was leading with 38.53 percent against 37.07 percent for the ruling New Majority coalition.
Opinion polls had given Bachelet’s center-left coalition a razor-thin lead before polls opened.
“We’ve got to do things better. That’s what the people are asking for,” Bachelet said after learning the results.
The local polls are the last vote before general elections in 2017 that will decide the Socialist leader’s successor, at a time when the left in Chile — as in much of Latin America — is struggling.
In the elections, which serve as the unofficial opening of the 2017 campaign season, some 14 million voters are choosing 346 mayors, plus city councils.
The vote came as Bachelet, Chile’s first woman president, has been sideswiped by a corruption scandal involving her son and is struggling to deliver on the reform agenda that got her elected by a landslide in 2013.
After testing political waters in the local polls, the country’s parties will nominate presidential candidates and launch their campaigns.
The 65-year-old Bachelet — serving for a second time as the South American country’s president — urged people to participate in the election, amid fears Sunday’s polls would be marred by low turnout.
Bachelet is one of the last remaining leaders from a “pink tide” of left-wing governments that swept Latin America in the last decade.
She served a first term from 2006 to 2010, and — constitutionally barred from immediate re-election — returned in 2014.
But her popularity has plunged since accusations emerged last year that her son and his wife used political influence and inside information to make $5 million on a shady real estate deal.
A separate campaign-finance scandal involving some of the country’s biggest firms and political parties has also been damaging.
Bachelet herself has not been implicated in either scandal, although they have hurt her image as a squeaky clean reformer.
Elected with 66 percent of the vote, her popularity now stands at just 23 percent.
The top name on the left currently being floated for a presidential run is Isabel Allende — not to be confused with her distant relative of the same name who is a best-selling novelist.
She is a senator and the daughter of former president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by late dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1973 coup.
Journalist and independent Senator Alejandro Guillier also scores well in opinion polls, while former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) has thrown his hat in the ring, too.
On the right, former president Sebastian Pinera (2010-2014) is tipped as the likely nominee, but has yet to declare his candidacy.
The local polls come amid an economic slowdown in Chile, hit hard — like much of the region — by the plunge in global commodity prices.
Chile, the world’s top copper producer, will see economic growth of just 1.75 percent this year, before a pickup of 2.25 percent in 2017, the government forecasts.