LUIS ANDRES HENAO
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) -- Michelle Bachelet is expected to overwhelmingly win Sunday's presidential election and possibly avoid a runoff, riding a wave of hope that brought millions of Chileans to the streets demanding social change.
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 education overhaul, strengthen labor 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 Bachelet.
Much harder, analysts say, will be pushing her agenda through Congress, where a hostile right-wing block is likely to stifle major legislative changes.
With a hefty lead in polls, Bachelet is already working to diminish expectations, dialing back proposals to draft a new constitution and legalize gay marriage. Bachelet warned voters recently not to expect immediate changes, saying: "People understand that governments can't immediately deliver dramatic results on day two."
"Her program is much less ambitious than what she promised in the early part of her campaign. It's calling for negotiations, commissions, dialogue, debate, but she's not really committing herself to any dramatic transformations," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University.
That could cost her among her political base, particularly the 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 on Sunday. "We must continue protesting."
The top Chilean polling company CEP found 47 percent would choose Bachelet in the weekend vote. With a margin of error of 3 percentage points, that puts her in striking distance of gaining more than the 50 percent she needs to avoid a Dec. 15 runoff.
Conservative Evelyn Matthei, her closest rival, got just 14 percent support in the October poll, which is the last one conducted in the country of 17 million. Seven other candidates trailed behind, splitting the remaining vote.
Bachelet and Matthei have an almost Shakespearean relationship as childhood friends whose fathers were top generals on opposite sides of Chile's deep political divide.
Bachelet's father remained loyal to the cause of late socialist President Salvador Allende after the 1973 coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Matthei's father, meanwhile ran the military school where the elder Bachelet was imprisoned and tortured to death for his stance.
Both families have said the elder Matthei had no direct involvement in the Bachelet's father's death and the two women have remained cordial over the years as they rose through the ranks on different ends of the political spectrum.
If Bachelet wins against Matthei, 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, UN Women, a platform that has put before cameras in Europe and the United States.
Matthei, meanwhile, says Chile should continue the policies of current center-right President Sebastian Pinera. She says taxes should not be raised and the Constitution drafted under Pinochet shouldn't be changed. She's promised jobs for the unemployed and incentives for small business owners.
Bachelet's first term has been criticized for a costly, failed project to create a mass transportation system, and her government was also knocked for its slow response to a devastating 2010 quake and tsunami that occurred in her waning weeks in power.
Despite the setbacks, she left office with 84 percent approval and support remains strong, especially among the poor.
Yolanda Diaz, 69, who spent years selling recycled cardboard in a working class neighborhood of Santiago to put one of her four children through college, said she believed Bachelet would keep her campaign promises to help the disadvantaged.
"I have even more reason to vote for her now because she's the only one who cared about us, the poor," she said.
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.