Campaign speeches were notable for one great unmentionable: General Pinochet, who is under house arrest in London as he waits for the appeal against his extradition to Spain on charges of torture and murder.
Mr Lavin, backed by the elite that prospered in the Pinochet boom, sidestepped his past as an economic adviser to the dictator. But he is expected to garner up to 43 per cent of votes, enough to ensure a run-off in mid- January.
Mr Lavin, 46, spent $40m (pounds 25m) on his campaign, 10 times more than anyone else. His message was glib: "We need a new generation of leaders. These old politicians waste their time quarrelling about the past. Today and tomorrow are what matter."
Ancient anxieties have resurfaced as the left finds itself facing down the extreme right. For the past 10 years Chile has been governed by a coalition of Christian Democrats, led by the outgoing president, Eduardo Frei; Mr Lagos's Party for Popular Democracy and other groups. They oversaw the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Neither camp now wants to bring up General Pinochet's detention: Chileans prefer not to dwell on the excesses of their old ogre.
Mr Lagos, 61, is no radical. By conducting himself more like a moderate Euro-Socialist, his party could co-exist with the Christian-Democrats for years. But the leftist label still invokes memories of chaos under Allende. Even though Mr Lagos's free-market economics and tax breaks seem almost the same as Mr Lavin's, the conservative Independent Democratic Union party plays up these apprehensions.
Many moderates fear a victory for the left could undermine stability. The swing vote, estimated at up to 10 per cent, was strenuously wooed by Mr Lavin. Although most Chileans voting for fringe parties are expected to switch to Mr Lagos in a run-off, analysts think Mr Lavin's campaign may ultimately buttress democracy. With his wealthy supporters, relative youth and Catholic populism, he would head a healthy opposition.Reuse content