SANTIAGO, Chile — A Socialist physician held a strong lead in Chile’s presidential election yesterday, according to early returns, but she appeared set to fall short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff and become the country’s first female president.
With 12.7 percent of ballots counted, Michelle Bachelet, who was imprisoned during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s rule, had 44.8 percent of the vote. Her two conservative rivals trailed her by more than 20 percentage points, according to the first official returns announced by the government.
If she wins, Mrs. Bachelet would be Latin America’s fourth elected female leader, representing the popular center-left coalition in power since 1990. President Ricardo Lagos, who is constitutionally limited to one term, enjoys a more than 70 percent approval rating, and few Chileans seem in the mood for radical change.
If she fails to win 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held Jan. 15 against the second-place candidate.
Pre-election polls have indicated Mrs. Bachelet would win in a runoff against either of the two candidates who trailed her most closely yesterday. She has promised to make half her Cabinet female if elected.
The three main candidates all support the free-market policies that have built one of the most prosperous economies in Latin America.
“First round or second round, I am confident we will win,” Mrs. Bachelet, 54, said after casting her vote at a Santiago school.
Mrs. Bachelet’s main opponents were the millionaire economist and businessman Sebastian Pinera, 56, and economist Joaquin Lavin, 52.
According to the early returns, Mr. Pinera had 26.7 percent of the vote and Mr. Lavin had 23.5 percent. A fourth candidate, Tomas Hirsch, 48, representing a coalition that includes the Communist Party, had 4.9 percent of the vote.
Mrs. Bachelet’s personal history is an important part of her public image. Her father, a general, was tortured to death for opposing Gen. Pinochet’s 1973 coup.
She was forced into exile after being jailed with her mother, blindfolded, beaten and denied food for five days while their cellmates were raped. As a medical student, aides said, she often treated women who were tortured.