By Alexandra Ulmer
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Red-hot favorite Michelle Bachelet is almost certain to cruise to victory in Chile's presidential runoff election on Sunday, propelled by her warm style and vows to redress steep income inequality.
Bachelet's right-wing opponent Evelyn Matthei is likely to take a beating, hurt by her ties with the unpopular government of outgoing president Sebastian Pinera and with the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
In a twist that has captivated Chile, Bachelet and Matthei were neighbors and playmates as children on an air force base, though the brutal 1973 coup later divided the two military families.
Bachelet, a center-leftist who was president from 2006 to 2010, has promised to hike corporate taxes to reform Chile's higher education system, shred the dictatorship-era constitution and legalize abortion under certain circumstances.
Her flagship reforms have resonated in a changing Chile, where major protests for greater distribution of the spoils of a long copper boom have shaken up the political elite.
Still, Bachelet is a moderate at heart who is unlikely to significantly alter the business-friendly economic model that has drawn in heavy foreign investment.
"Chileans vote for Bachelet because they want changes. But not too many changes," said Patricio Navia, a political scientist at the Universidad Diego Portales. "Bachelet doesn't want to change the roadmap, she wants to make it more inclusive."
In the first round of voting on November 17, Bachelet, a 62 year-old pediatrician by training, pocketed nearly twice as many votes as Matthei, a 60 year-old economist and former labor minister.
But with nine candidates running, the vote was fractured and Bachelet fell just short of the 50 percent she needed for an outright first-round victory. She clinched 47 percent to runner-up Matthei's 25 percent.
Bachelet's Nueva Mayoria, or New Majority, bloc gained in congressional elections held the same day, though she will still need to broker deals with the right and keep her diverse coalition in check to steer her reforms through a notoriously tricky Congress.
With Congress configured and Bachelet a likely shoo-in, Sunday's election is almost seen as a formality.
Still, should Bachelet triumph with the biggest percentage of votes in a presidential election since 1989, there would be greater momentum behind her reforms.
"It's going to be symbolic if she wins with over 60 percent because she's going to be able to claim she is the owner of the New Majority, and that there really is a New Majority," said Kenneth Bunker, a political scientist from the London School of Economics who runs an influential web site on Chilean politics.
There have been no major surveys on voting intentions, largely because Bachelet has such a clear lead, but analysts say turnout will be important.
"A high turnout will give (Bachelet) a bigger mandate as she moves forward on reforms," said Peter Siavelis, author and political scientist. "The margin of victory will be very important in terms of what foot she gets off on."
It is the first time two women are vying for the top job in traditionally conservative and Catholic Chile.
While Bachelet and Matthei are not friends, they were neighbors and playmates at the Cerro Moreno base in the northern Atacama desert, where their air force general fathers became very close despite their political differences.
The girls rode bikes and played together in the street, according to a bestselling book about them. Their connection was clear during a televised debate on Tuesday night, when the candidates referred to each other by first name and the informal Spanish form of "you."
But their families stood on opposite sides of the 1973 military coup that ushered in Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship.
Matthei's father went on to become a key member of Pinochet's junta while Bachelet's father, loyal to deposed socialist President Salvador Allende, was arrested, tortured by Pinochet's agents and died in prison.
Bachelet and her mother were also tortured before fleeing into exile. They returned to Chile in 1979, in part thanks to Matthei's father, according to the authors of the book "Daughters of a General."
Matthei backed Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite about his rule, which she describes as a "military government," a decision that has dogged her on the campaign trail just as Chile commemorates the 40th anniversary of the coup.
Several of Bachelet's reforms aim to purge Pinochet's legacy, which continues to divide Chilean society. Those reforms include changes to the constitution and electoral laws.
Voting is set to begin at 8 a.m. local time (6.00 a.m. EST) and will continue to 6 p.m. (4.00 p.m. EST). Results are expected shortly after voting booths close.
(Reporting and writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Kieran Murray and Vicki Allen)