SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile's ruling socialist party decided on Sunday to lend its support to an independent senator's candidacy for president, dealing a blow to former President Ricardo Lagos' bid to return for another term.
After a long debate, the party decided to back Alejandro Guillier, a left-leaning former journalist who is a member of the ruling New Majority coalition and has promised to advance current socialist President Michelle Bachelet's reforms in the world's largest copper producer.
Primaries are to be held in July, with the general election in November.
A few months ago, the election appeared poised to pit two establishment, market-friendly candidates -- Lagos, and former center-right President Sebastian Pinera -- against each other. But Lagos, 79, flagged in the polls as Guillier's popularity soared.
Pinera leads the race with 27 percent support compared with 23 percent for Guillier, according to pollster GfK Adimark. Lagos registered only 3 percent support in the poll published this week.
Guillier was a relative unknown in Chilean politics until recently. But graft scandals and sluggish growth in the country, long one of Latin America's most stable and prosperous, have disenchanted Chileans with politics as usual and turned Guillier's outsider status into an asset.
(Reporting by Felipe Iturrieta; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Sandra Maler)