(Updates with voter comments, candidates casting ballots)
By Dave Sherwood and Caroline Stauffer
SANTIAGO, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Chileans voted in a runoff
presidential election on Sunday that will determine if the
world's top copper producer stays on its center-left course or
joins a tide of Latin American nations turning to the right in
They are choosing between billionaire former President
Sebastian Pinera, 68, a conservative who was considered the
front-runner but earned fewer votes than expected in last
month's first round, and center-left Senator Alejandro Guillier,
a 64-year-old former journalist.
Both candidates would keep in place Chile's longstanding
free-market economic model, but Pinera has promised lower taxes
to turbocharge growth while Guillier wants the government to
press on with outgoing President Michelle Bachelet's overhaul of
education, taxes and labor.
The contest comes ahead of a long stretch of elections in
Latin America in 2018. While populist candidates on both the
right and left are polling near the top in the countries with
the largest economies, Brazil and Mexico, none advanced to the
second round in Chile.
Still, strong-than-expected support in Chile for hard-left
Beatriz Sanchez and far-right Jose Antonio Kast in the Nov. 19
first round pushed Pinera and Guillier to try to attract voters
unhappy with the status quo in what is widely considered Latin
America's most developed nation.
Large swathes of voters were left with the option of voting
for candidates they did not particularly like or staying home in
one of the few countries in the region where voting is not
mandatory. Many are simply disillusioned by politics.
"The question is, "Who hates the other side more," said
University of Chile professor Robert Funk.
Chilean financial markets rallied in the final week of
campaigning in the country of 17 million people with a $250
billion economy, boosted by hopes of Pinera's victory, along
with firm prices for Chile's main export, copper.
No major polls were made public in the past month, but
consultancy Teneo Intelligence said in a report that Pinera, who
took more than 36 percent of first-round votes, "is likely to
retain a slight edge" in a very tight race.
Guillier, the flagbearer for Bachelet's Nueva Mayoria
coalition, garnered just 23 percent of first-round votes, the
weakest performance by any center-left candidate since Chile's
return to democracy in 1990 and a reflection of broad discontent
Leftists have complained that Bachelet's social policies are
too timid while the conservative opposition says they have
stoked market uncertainty and crimped private investment,
causing average economic growth to slow to 1.8 percent per year.
HOPE FOR UNITY
The election on Sunday was the first in which Chileans
living abroad were allowed to vote, adding another layer of
Pinera called for unity after what has been a bitter
campaign and reminded Chileans of the national strength they had
shown during the rescue of 33 trapped miners in 2010, the high
point of his first term that ended in 2014.
"My great hope is that after this election, despite the
division, we can return to unity," he said after voting in
Guillier told a crowd in his hometown of Antofagasta, near
the country's main copper mines, that he was optimistic about
winning by a "marked difference."
To win, Guillier must capture votes from Sanchez supporters,
who said she would vote for him to protest Pinera. Construction
worker and Sanchez supporter Patricio Flores, 36, said he would
follow her lead.
"We can't have a billionaire running our country. Obviously
he is going to protect his own interests," Flores said after
voting in Santiago.
Guillier, a former radio and television journalist of more
modest means, has pledged to increase access to free higher
education and write workers' and indigenous rights into a
constitution to replace the current dictatorship-era document.
Pinera, a Harvard-trained economist who made his fortune
introducing credit cards to Chile in the 1980s, said he would
create a public pension fund to compete with Chile's
much-criticized private pension funds, and expand free
"I voted for Pinera because I am an entrepreneur. I value my
own efforts and do not expect much from the government," said
Rosario Poma, 53. "I think (Pinera) will be good for
(Additional reporting by Felipe Iturrieta and Antonio de la
Jara; Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Alistair Bell and
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