The 62-year-old former political prisoner has taken up the cause of protesters demanding education reform, greater environmental protection and a reduction of Chile’s sharp income inequality. She has promised to raise corporate taxes to help fund an overhaul of education, strengthen unions and improve health care and public services.
Thursday was the last day of campaigning for elections that will also choose 120 members of the lower House of Congress and 20 out of 38 Senate seats. But getting elected to a second four-year term as Chile’s first and only female president is likely to be the easy part for Ms Bachelet.
With a hefty lead in polls, she is already working to lower expectations, talking down proposals to draft a new constitution and legalise gay marriage. She warned voters not to expect immediate changes, saying: “People understand that governments can’t immediately deliver dramatic results on day two.”
That could cost her among her political base, particularly those protesters who have championed her candidacy while vowing not to give her much slack if she wavers.
“Candidates promise many things and in the end, it’s the people who have to bring change,” said Matilde Donoso, a 21-year-old university student who has participated in demonstrations and will vote for the first time tomorrow.
Chilean polling company CEP found 47 per cent support for Ms Bachelet. With a margin of error of three percentage points, that puts her in striking distance of gaining more than the 50 per cent she needs to avoid a 15 December run-off.
Conservative Evelyn Matthei, her closest rival, got just 14 per cent support, with seven other candidates trailing behind, splitting the remaining vote.
Ms Bachelet and Ms Matthei have an almost Shakespearean relationship as childhood friends whose fathers were generals on opposite sides of Chile’s deep political divide. The former’s father remained loyal to the cause of late socialist president Salvador Allende after the 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet. Ms Matthei’s father ran the military school where Mr Bachelet was imprisoned and tortured to death for his stance.
Both families say Mr Matthei had no direct involvement in Mr Bachelet’s death, and the two women have remained cordial over the years as they rose through the ranks at different ends of the political spectrum.
If Ms Bachelet wins, she’ll return to the seat of power with international experience she didn’t have when she first took office in 2006. Since she stepped down in 2010, she has headed the United Nations’ agency for women and gender equality.
Ms Matthei, meanwhile, says Chile should continue the policies of current centre-right president Sebastian Pinera. She says taxes should not be raised and that the constitution drafted under Pinochet should not be changed. She has promised jobs for the unemployed and incentives for small business owners.
Ms Bachelet’s first term was criticised for a costly, failed project to create a mass transportation system, and for its slow response to a 2010 earthquake and tsunami during her last weeks in power. Despite the setbacks, she left office with an 84 per cent approval rating and her support remains strong, especially among the poor.
Yolanda Diaz, 69, who used to sell recycled cardboard in a working-class district of Santiago to put one of her four children through university, said: “I have even more reason to vote for her now because she’s the only one who cared about us, the poor.”