July 3, 2017 / 12:33 AM / in 4 months

Chile's Pinera cruising to primary win, solidifying front-runner status

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Former Chile President Sebastian Pinera was cruising to victory on Sunday in the presidential nominating election for Chile’s right-leaning Alianza bloc, consolidating his place as the frontrunner for November’s general election.

A man casts his vote for the primaries in Chile's presidential election in Vina del Mar, Chile July 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

With 60 percent of votes counted, investor favorite Pinera, 67, a billionaire who governed Chile from 2010 to 2014, had 57 percent of Alianza votes cast, the country’s electoral service Servel said.

That represented a decisive win over right-wing populist Manuel Jose Ossandon and the more socially liberal Felipe Kast, who had 29 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

Chile’s relatively minor left-wing Frente Amplio coalition also held its primaries on Sunday, with journalist Beatriz Sanchez easily beating sociologist Alberto Mayol as expected.

Sunday’s results narrow Chile’s presidential field to four major candidates and Pinera’s win will be welcome by the business community in one of South America’s most stable and affluent countries.

Investors blame a flurry of economic reforms by center-left President Michelle Bachelet for sowing uncertainty, and they see Pinera as the best alternative to boost growth.

Pinera’s presidency saw rapid economic growth and a steep drop in unemployment, but was marred by massive student protests seeking an education overhaul. His administration’s responses were often seen as out of touch and social groups continue to oppose him.

According to the most recent poll by pollster CEP, released in June, Pinera leads the November election with around 24 percent of the vote. Leftist journalist Alejandro Guillier of the center-left Nueva Mayoria bloc, which did not participate in primaries, is in second place with 13 percent.

Sanchez followed with 5 percent, while Carolina Goic of the centrist Christian Democratic Party, which also skipped primaries, is trailing with 2 percent.

Bachelet is not allowed to seek re-relection, as Chile’s constitution bans presidents from seeking consecutive terms.

If no candidate receives 50 percent in the first round in November as is likely, the election will go to a run-off in December. A runoff is seen as much tighter, particularly if the now fractured left unifies around one candidate.

Turnout was considered moderate given that Chile’s national soccer team played Germany in the Confederations Cup finals while the polls were open. Chile lost 1-0.

(Refiles to remove extraneous word in the first paragraph.)

Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Sandra Maler

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