SANTIAGO, Chile — - In a vote that could signal the end of the center-left coalition that has governed Chile since the end of the Pinochet military dictatorship, right-wing Chilean billionaire Sebastian Pinera came out on top in Sunday's presidential election, setting the stage for a runoff with former President Eduardo Frei next month.
With 59.9 percent of votes counted, Pinera had 44.2 percent, and Frei, of the ruling Concertacion coalition, had 30.5 percent. A runoff will be held Jan. 17. Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a socialist congressman, garnered 19.4 percent and communist Jorge Arrate had 5.9 percent.
Pinera, 60, who has a doctorate in economics from Harvard University, finished second to sitting president Michelle Bachelet in 2005. He comes from a political family that includes former ministers and diplomats. He was also named to the Forbes magazine list of billionaires and owns a professional soccer team, a television station and a minority interest in LAN Chile airline.
The preliminary results conform with pre-election surveys and exit polls conducted by local TV and radio stations and Catholic University.
Although the majority of Enriquez-Ominami and Arrate voters are expected to migrate to Frei, 67, in the second round, Pinera is favored to win the runoff and become the first freely elected right-wing president since 1958, said political analyst Ricardo Israel.
Pinera's candidacy resonated among Chilean voters with his call for improved education, streamlined bureaucracy and greater emphasis on industrializing the economy. He promised to create 1 million jobs. He also courted gay voters and abortion-rights advocates.
"We feel millions of Chileans have bet their future on us," Pinera said after casting his vote at a Santiago school.
Concertacion candidates have ruled Chile since the nation returned to democracy in 1990 after 17 years of military dictatorship led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Bachelet, who ran on the Concertacion ticket, is forbidden by law to run for re-election and leaves office March 11.
Israel said he expects a tight run-off.
"Don't forget that Pinera and the other right-wing candidate combined won more than 40 percent in the first round in 2005, and that Pinochet got more than 40 percent in 1989 in the first election after the return to democracy, but were ultimately defeated in the run-offs by the Concertacion," Israel said.
Voting is obligatory in Chile: More than 8 million votes were cast Sunday in the first presidential election since the death in 2006 of Pinochet, who seized power in 1973 after a coup and remained in control until early 1990.
Bachelet has enjoyed high approval numbers for her social programs benefiting the poor, elderly and women. But many voters appeared most concerned with Chile's economy, which has been battered by the global economic crisis.