SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile’s once and future leader Michelle Bachelet easily won Sunday’s presidential runoff, returning center-left parties to power by promising profound changes in response to years of street protests.
Ms. Bachelet won with 62 percent to 38 percent for the center-right’s Evelyn Matthei, who promptly congratulated her rival.
“I hope she does very well. No one who loves Chile can wish otherwise,” Ms. Matthei said.
Turnout was just 41 percent, a factor that worried Ms. Bachelet, who needs a strong mandate to overcome congressional opposition and keep her promises.
“I hope people can come and participate and through their vote give a clear expression of the kind of Chile where they want to continue to live,” Ms. Bachelet said after casting her ballot. “The changes we need can’t be produced through skepticism.”
Ms. Bachelet, 62, ended her 2006-2010 presidency with 84 percent approval ratings despite failing to achieve major changes.
This time, activists are vowing to hold her to promises to raise corporate taxes to help fund an education overhaul and even change the dictatorship-era constitution, a difficult goal given congressional opposition.
Many Chileans blame the policies of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship for keeping wealth and power in few hands.
Pinochet effectively ended land reform by selling off the nation’s water and preserved the best educations for elites by ending the central control and funding of public schools.
Opinion polls had pointed to a bruising defeat for Ms. Matthei, a former finance minister, because of her past support for Pinochet and her ties to outgoing President Sebastian Pinera.
The billionaire entrepreneur was Chile’s first center-right president since democracy’s return. With just 34 percent support in the latest CEP poll, he also was the most unpopular.
This was Chile’s first presidential election after voter registration became automatic, increasing the electorate from 8 million to 13.5 million of the country’s nearly 17 million people.
But voting became optional, and only 50 percent of voters turned out in the first round, frustrating both the major coalitions.
In the runoff, only 5.5 million voted — 41 percent.
It also was Chile’s first choice between two women, both with long careers in politics.
Ms. Bachelet, a pediatrician, and Ms. Matthei, an economist, were playmates while growing up on a military base. They found themselves on opposite sides of Chile’s wide political divide after the 1973 military coup.
Ms. Matthei’s father joined Pinochet’s junta while Ms. Bachelet’s father was tortured to death for refusing his support. Ms. Bachelet, a moderate socialist, was imprisoned and exiled.
Ms. Matthei, 60, had campaigned to continue business-friendly policies that she credited for Chile’s fast growth and low unemployment under Mr. Pinera. She backed Pinochet in a 1988 referendum and opposes changing the Pinochet-era constitution. She’s also against gay marriage, abortion, and higher taxes.
Ms. Bachelet’s critics say she’s made mistakes. When a quake struck in 2010, the national emergency office failed to issue a tsunami warning. Many coastal dwellers, figuring they were safe, failed to run to higher ground. More than 500 people were killed in the disasters, just 11 days before her term ended.