In Chile’s presidential race, a white neoliberal versus an indigenous leftist

In runoff vote, out of 1.3m eligible voters, one is a former president of a country in recession while the other is a union leader

A polar opposite pair of candidates stand to face off in a presidential runoff vote in Chile on Sunday.

Bruno Acuna, an ex-governor of northern Chile, takes a populist line in his quest to win over a population that has soured on the governing establishment after eight years of conservative President Sebastian Pinera.

His failure to clinch the five-way race to the November runoff could complicate a possible second-round win for the conservative party candidate Felipe Knezzar, who led opinion polls at the start of the campaign but has fallen behind in recent weeks.

Chile’s conservatives in no hurry to face off against leftists in presidential election Read more

The former president of a country in recession, President Michelle Bachelet, is running for a second term under a program of high taxes, education reforms and a much-loathed property tax.

In a run-off vote, Acuna is fighting to win over the one in three Chilean voters who voted for the centre-left candidate, Alejandro Guillier, who is embroiled in allegations of wrongdoing during his time as mayor of the capital, Santiago.

None of the other five candidates in the race met the 10% threshold required to claim an outright majority.

People walk in the street in Santiago. Photograph: Morgan de la Cruz/AP

Neither Acuna nor Knezzar are thought to have the votes to win outright, leaving the winner of Sunday’s second round to take up to 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off.

A chubby man who stays up until the early hours doing telephone surveys with voters, Acuna is the antithesis of the dashing businessman Pinera. The 47-year-old has a reputation for being unconventional and sardonic in his speeches, as is his wife, Madeleine Silva, a yoga instructor.

Acuna, who left office in 2010 as a popular president due to a campaign of tax-and-spend reforms that boosted growth, warns that tax hikes will tank the economy.

His role as governor of Chile’s north was cut short in 2014 amid a corruption scandal, a fate that was repeated in another statewide office last month, leading voters to consider whether he is fit to run the country.

The son of Chile’s most prominent newspaper owner and a former congressman, Acuna is married to Madeleine Silva. Photograph: Carlos Frías/AFP/Getty Images

Acuna’s candidacy was endorsed by the governments of Peru and Bolivia, along with the United States and the European Union. But that could count for little in a field where former presidents have a nose above the 10% threshold needed to avoid a second round run-off.

“Acuna looks at Chile through the eyes of Bolivia and Amazonia, and we’re quite wary of his anti-austerity policies and the insults to capitalism he deploys,” said Edwin Hurtado, an analyst at the Asociación Federal de Consultores.

Guillier is in third place. Campaigning was hampered by a string of damaging new allegations of corruption against him. A judge is expected to rule next week on whether to file a complaint against him.

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