Right-wing billionaire Sebastian Pinera set himself up for an election run-off against a veteran of the coalition that has ruled Chile for two decades of democracy.
Mr Pinera beat three left-wingers in the presidential election, but failed to obtain a majority.
With 60% of the vote counted, Harvard-educated Mr Pinera had 44% to 30% for the ruling centre-left coalition’s candidate, former president Eduardo Frei.
Socialist politician Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who broke away from the ruling coalition in a dispute with Mr Frei, had 19% and Jorge Arrate, representing a Communist-led bloc, had 6%, according to nationwide results.
The trend was expected to roughly hold, putting Mr Pinera and Mr Frei in a January 17 run-off election where the key question will be whether leftists can unify to fend off the most moderate candidate Chile’s Right has ever had.
A run-off win by Mr Pinera, 60, would give Chile its first right-wing government since General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship and would mark a tilt to the right in a region where left-wingers have won most recent elections.
The government’s general secretary, Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo, immediately called on supporters of the other left-wing candidates to come together, saying that yesterday’s vote made it clear that the people wanted Mr Frei in the second round.
Stability and experience are selling points for Mr Frei, 67, who governed Chile from 1994 to 2000.
“We don’t want leaps into the unknown, nor do we want to return to the past. We want a government that worries about the people,” he said after voting.
“We don’t believe that the power of the market and money should have priority over a society.”
But many voters are fed up with having the same government throughout 19 years of democracy following Gen Pinochet. Promising change, Mr Pinera and Mr Enriquez-Ominami challenged the ruling coalition like never before.
Outgoing president Michelle Bachelet has 78% approval ratings and Chile seems on track to become a first-world nation.
Chile’s economy, negligible inflation and stable democracy are the envy of Latin America. Booming copper revenues and prudent fiscal policies have helped the government reduce poverty from 45% in 1990 to 13% today, raising per capita annual income to 14,000 in the nation of 17 million.
But a huge wealth gap between rich and poor and a chronically underfunded education system have many voters feeling more must be done to redistribute Chile’s copper wealth. A study by the World Bank several years ago showed that the poorest 10% of Chileans benefit from only 1.3% of government revenues, while the richest 10% benefit from 40%.
Mr Pinera is ranked No 701 with $1bn the Forbes magazine world’s richest list.
He built his fortune bringing credit cards to Chile and his investments include Chile’s main airline, most popular football team and a leading TV channel.
He has promised to bring the same entrepreneurial spirit to governing Chile, and expressed optimism after the voting, saying “better times are coming”.
Whether he succeeds depends in large part on voters for Mr Enriquez-Ominami, a renegade Socialist and documentary film-maker whose Communist rebel father was killed by Pinochet’s military in 1973, the year he was born.
Mr Enriquez-Ominami had broken with the ruling coalition in a dispute with Mr Frei, but said yesterday he would support him in the end.
“I don’t share the vision of Sebastian Pinera for Chile. I don’t believe his restrictive view of culture, politics and democracy,” said Mr Enriquez-Ominami.
“We need to come together to defeat the conservatives.”
Some analysts predict a very tight vote in January, estimating that as much as a third of Mr Enriquez-Ominami’s supporters will defect to Mr Pinera, even though his alliance of right-wing parties once helped sustain the dictatorship.
“The second round is going to be similar to the last two presidential elections – very tight, with the only difference being that for the first time, the opposition candidate has the advantage,” said Ricardo Israel, a political scientist at the University of Chile.