Polls opened Sunday in a
Chilean presidential run-off election that was expected to be very tight, with the two candidates technically tied, according to a recent opinion poll, dpa reported.
In fact, the vote could turn out to be historic, if Eduardo Frei, 67, the candidate of the centre-left alliance that has ruled Chile since the restoration of democracy in 1990, loses to conservative multimillionaire Sebastian Pinera, 60.
With about 8 million Chileans registered to vote, polling stations were set to close at 2000 GMT. Exit poll results were expected to be available shortly afterwards, with the first preliminary official results to be made public later Sunday.
The ruling Concertacion - a coalition of Socialists and Christian- Democrats with two smaller parties - is facing the possibility of losing power for the first time in its history, despite the huge popularity of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet.
Indeed, Pinera easily won the December 13 first round of voting with 44 per cent, but fell short of an outright majority, forcing him to contest a run-off against second-place finisher Frei, who got barely 30 per cent of the first-round votes.
Pinera had long seemed poised for a win that would give him the presidency Sunday, and voter surveys showed him several percentage points ahead of Frei. But Frei, a Christian Democratic senator who previously governed Chile from 1994-2000, closed the gap in the final days of the campaign.
An opinion survey issued Wednesday by the prestigious MORI polling firm put Pinera at 50.9 per cent compared to 49.1 per cent for Frei, a statistical dead heat based on the 3-per-cent margin of error.
The winner of Sunday's run-off is scheduled for inauguration to a four-year term on March 11.
Bachelet, a Socialist, is ending her term with approval ratings above 80 per cent. Chilean law forbids presidents from seeking consecutive terms, but she has already declared her intention to run for the office again in the future.