SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is seen easily winning a primary election on Sunday to lead the center-left's presidential ticket in November, competing against one of two seasoned politicians from the debilitated right-wing bloc.
A popular pediatrician turned politician, Bachelet is largely expected to win back the presidency after governing from 2006 to 2010. She would take over from President Sebastian Pinera, a wealthy businessman who has struggled to connect with everyday Chileans and is barred from running for re-election.
Voters from Pinera's conservative Alianza coalition will also elect their presidential candidate on Sunday, choosing between former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, who was close to ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet, and former Defense Minister Andres Allamand.
The presidential election is scheduled for November 17 and a second round of voting would be held in mid December if the front-runner does not get more than half of the votes.
"Bachelet is all but guaranteed to win her center-left coalition's primary on 30 June, and is also well positioned to beat any conservative candidate in the general election, likely in the 15 December second-round," said Risa Grais-Targow, Latin American analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington.
Bachelet's approval ratings hover near 75 percent, compared with 40 for Allamand and 21 for Longueira, according to a survey conducted by pollster CEP between November and December, which was the most recent such poll.
Bachelet has promised to tackle Chile's steep economic inequality by hiking corporate taxes to fund free university-level education and push for a new constitution to replace the one created under Pinochet in 1980.
In general, however, she is not seen straying far from the market-friendly economic policies that have helped make Chile one of the most stable countries in the region.
Both of her potential right-wing rivals are hampered by having served as ministers under Pinera, who broke 20 years of uninterrupted center-left rule when he took power in 2010.
Analysts caution turnout has been a wild card since voting became voluntary last year as opposed to mandatory.
Disenchantment with the political establishment could keep many voters at home. Chile, the world's top copper-exporting nation, is ranked the most unequal country of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
"If turnout is large, then a Bachelet victory could put her on very good footing for the November election, but if turnout is low, no matter how wide Bachelet's victory is, there would be questions about Chileans' interest both in the election and in having Bachelet as the next president," said Patricio Navia, professor at New York University and Universidad Diego Portales.
In the right-wing contest, strong voter turnout would boost Allamand, whom polls show to be more popular than Longueira.
Bachelet, who belongs to the socialist party, expanded social welfare programs during her rule but did little to disturb the country's free-market economic policies.
She appears to have swung further left since leaving office, however, in line with escalating demands by students and workers. Some of her proposed social policies - which include legalizing abortion in select cases and authorizing gay marriage - would mark a big change for traditionally conservative Chile.
Education is a crucial electoral issue as well because students, parents and teachers have thronged the streets over the past two years to press for free and improved education.
Many Chileans will vote in high school buildings that were occupied for weeks by students demanding education reform. They were evicted by police on Thursday.
Candidates from smaller parties or independents, who will not participate in the primaries but are slated to be on the presidential ballot, could push the November election to a run-off. Whoever is elected will take office in March 2014.
(Reporting and writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Hilary Burke)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp