Centre-left set to win in Chile

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SANTIAGO - Barring a last- minute political earthquake, Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat, looks sure to emulate his father by winning tomorrow's Chilean presidential elections by a record margin, predicted at 58 per cent.

Eduardo Frei the elder, founder of the Christian Democrats, ruled from 1964 to 1970 after capturing a then record 55.6 per cent of the vote. The man who took over from Mr Frei senior was Salvador Allende, the Marxist who was overthrown and died in a 1973 coup led by General Augusto Pinochet.

Respecting a 1988 plebiscite under which he unsuccessfully sought a further eight-year term, Gen Pinochet finally gave up the presidency in 1990, handing over to the man who had challenged and defeated him, Patricio Aylwin, head of the centre-left Concertacion coalition. But although tomorrow's presidential and congressional vote will be the first truly democratic elections in 23 years, the shadow of the general, still commander of the armed forces, remains. Occasional shows of military muscle since he stepped down have made sure of that.

Mr Frei junior, a 51-year-old Senator running for Concertacion, is given around 58 per cent in most opinion polls and is well ahead of his nearest rival, Arturo Alessandri, a 70-year-old right-wing lawyer who has around 25 per cent.

Eugenio Pizarro, a 55-year-old priest at the head of the Movement of the Allendist Left, which includes the Communist Party, and Jose Pinera, a right-winger and former minister in Gen Pinochet's military regime, look like winning little more than 3 per cent each.

Mr Frei's expected landslide will rule out a second round, laid down by the constitution if no candidate wins a majority of more than 50 per cent first time round. A last-minute parliamentary compromise this week will restrict the new president's term to six years instead of the constitutionally foreseen eight. At the time Mr Aylwin took over, the constitution had fixed his term at four years.

Mr Frei's clear lead has created little atmosphere on the eve of the vote. There have been television campaign spots and debates, but few large rallies and little sign of interest in the streets. A leading sociologist, Marta Lagos, noted that Mr Frei could win, ironically, with a record landslide vote but with a minimum of popular mobilisation.

Although Concertacion is also likely to win a majority in the lower house, complex voting rules and constitutional clauses tailor-made for Gen Pinochet make it unlikely Mr Frei will win the two-thirds congressional majority that would allow the president to replace the general as armed forces chief. Eight senators appointed by Gen Pinochet with a mandate running until 1997 will be able to block any such move, or other legislation that does not tickle the general's fancy.

Human rights abuses, notorious under Gen Pinochet's rule, have not been remedied and few military officers have been brought to justice. Because of the general's shadow human rights were barely mentioned during campaigning.