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By Antonio De la Jara and Fabian Cambero
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Two Chilean journalists have emerged as the main challengers to former President Sebastian Pinera in this year's presidential election, as one of South America's most stable and developed countries weighs the future of its political left.
Pinera, a conservative billionaire who handily won his party's primary on Sunday with 1.4 million ballots, is the clear front-runner ahead of the Nov. 19 election and has 31 percent of intended votes, according to a poll published on Monday by Gfk Adimark.
The current battle is for second, and a place against Pinera in a Dec. 17 run-off. Centre candidate Alejandro Guillier has 15 percent of votes and Beatriz Sanchez of the left-wing Frente Amplio, a new coalition, gained support over the past month and is technically tied with 13 percent, according to Gfk.
The campaign in coming months will therefore determine the policy course of the Chilean left after President Michelle Bachelet, who has encountered resistance to her tax-and-spend reform agenda that was meant to reduce inequality in the world's top copper producer.
Guillier is ideologically aligned with Bachelet while Sanchez has sought to propel the energy of student and protest groups who want better health and education and are frustrated with Chile's longstanding free-market model.
"They are in the same electoral spectrum and this foreshadows a very complex and tense situation," said political analyst Guillermo Holzmann of the upcoming showdown.
Guillier, who has held a Senate seat since 2013, and Sanchez both launched their careers on radio, one of the most trusted media forms in Chile, and have even worked for the same station, ADN Radio Chile. Now the two will have to show their differences.
"Beatriz comes from opinion journalism, of analysis, of communication criticism," her campaign manager Sebastian Depolo told Reuters. "Guillier has a journalism career but for four years he has been a senator, he is a member of the establishment."
Still, with the ruling Nueva Mayoria coalition in disarray at the twilight of Bachelet's rule and skipping Sunday's primaries, Guillier in the last few weeks has had to resort to a very non-established kind of campaigning. He walked door to door aiming to collect the 33,000 signatures to ensure his place on the November ballot as an independent.
While support for Sanchez rose in recent weeks ahead of her coalition's primary, Guillier lost 6 percentage points from a Gfk poll a month earlier. He acknowledges not competing in a primary was a setback but is betting the leftist coalition will eventually unify around him, despite his status as an independent.
Previously known as Concertacion, the coalition has won every election in Chile since its return to democracy in 1988, except for Pinera's first term in 2010. Bachelet, who is constitutionally banned for seeking a consecutive term, previously governed for the coalition from 2006 to 2010.
"We are going to be the ones in the big fight, because we have the backing of institutions, of the parties, of the independents," Guillier told reporters on Monday.
"We need to recover the rhythm and this week we will literally be campaigning because we don't have the roadblock of not being in the primary."
(Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Sandra Maler)