By Alexandra Ulmer
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean right-wing presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei has lost some ground in her uphill battle against the front-runner, former President Michelle Bachelet, according to a poll released on Tuesday.
The Ipsos survey showed center-left favorite Bachelet, who was Chile's first female president from 2006 to 2010, reaping 32 percent of likely votes in the November 17 election, down 1 percentage point from Ipsos' last poll from two weeks ago.
The poll showed Matthei with 20 percent, down from Ipsos' previous forecast of 23 percent. Maverick economist Franco Parisi, who has shocked the right by staging a late surge, is projected to win 14 percent versus the 15 percent previously forecast.
Around 11 percent of voters in the world's No. 1 copper producer remained undecided or planned to cast a void or blank ballot, with the rest of the probable votes split between the other six candidates jostling in the first round.
The poll indicates that the vote will go to a December 15 runoff, as suggested by a poll last week.
Bachelet would need to win more than 50 percent of votes to avoid a runoff, which no candidate has done since 1993.
A scant number of polls and the fact that voting in Chile is now voluntary has injected a dose of risk in making projections, though Bachelet has been seen as a shoo-in for months due to her personable style and vows to redress steep economic inequality.
As the former head of the U.N. women's agency is widely expected to cruise to victory, the major question is whether her bloc will land a sufficiently strong presence in Congress to push through her proposed reforms, which include hiking corporate taxes to help fund education reform and overhauling the dictatorship-era constitution.
Disenchantment with the political elite in Chile has bolstered support for independent and smaller-party candidates.
The 45-year-old Parisi shot to fame by hosting radio and TV shows explaining economics. His critiques of the political establishment and concentration of wealth have gone down well with some Chileans, particularly the young. Detractors say he is a populist without a clear ideology.
Matthei has switched strategies this week to attack him head-on - which many analysts interpreted as evidence her alarmed campaign has recognized he is gaining ground.
She said lawsuits have been filed against Parisi for failing to pay salaries at schools linked to his brother and him. Parisi retorted that Matthei's bloc was trying to create a scandal to deflect attention from her inability to win votes.
Her sharp tongue, former post as labor minister in the unpopular government of President Sebastian Pinera and family links to the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship have played against her, experts say.
Despite robust economic growth, billionaire businessman Pinera has been largely unable to connect with most Chileans. His Alianza bloc has also been dogged by its links to the dictatorship as Chile this year marks the 40th anniversary of the bloody military coup that ushered in Pinochet's rule.
Some in the Alianza say Pinera, who hails from the Renovacion Nacional party, has not thrown enough support behind Matthei, who belongs to the more conservative Union Democrata Independiente party.
Still, the poll indicated she is poised to finish ahead of Parisi next month to face Bachelet in December.
Bachelet has remained above the fray and has focused on touring remote regions to work the crowds. Critics say much of her popularity hinges on charisma and question why she did not implement the sweeping changes she now promises.
This is the first time Chile has had two female front-runners. The constitution bars the president from seeking direct re-election.
The Ipsos survey, conducted between October 8 and October 18, polled 1,400 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points. It gives voting intentions for the 51 percent of interviewees deemed 'likely voters,' with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Jim Loney)