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Senator Alejandro Guillier is seen inside the Chilean congress in Valparaiso, Chile January 10, 2017 REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

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By Rosalba O'Brien

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Alejandro Guillier, an independent Chilean senator who has shot up in the opinion polls to go from relative unknown to serious presidential hopeful in just weeks, said on Thursday that Chile was going through profound social change and needed "more substantial" reforms.

Guillier left journalism for politics in 2013 and now hopes to be selected by the left-leaning incumbent Nueva Mayoria bloc in primaries in July, followed by the elections in November.

Opinion polls of voter intentions place him close behind conservative former president Sebastian Pinera.

His main selling point has been a vow to upend politics-as-usual, at a time when scandals and a poor reception of centre-left President Michelle Bachelet's reform drive have increased cynicism among Chileans. But Guillier has yet to provide significant clarity on his polices.

"I think the reforms are necessary," Guillier told students and journalists at a forum on Thursday. "(But) I think they have to be more substantial, more grounded in everyday reality."

Bachelet's reforms have included raising taxes to pay for an overhaul of education. But the tax reform has been criticized for its complexity, while some students say the education bill falls short.

Guillier said, if elected, he would introduce a new tax bill.

"I think we're all in agreement it needs to be simplified," he said, adding that there were too many legal exemptions in the current system.

Education reform needed to tackle old-fashioned approaches to teaching and running schools, Guillier said. Latin American pupils underperform peers in similar economies in international rankings.

"Changing education is not just about discussing financing and administration, it's also about a revolution in the classroom. There is frustration because people feel the everyday experience is not changing," Guillier said.

The 63-year-old senator represents the dusty northern province of Antofagasta, home to many of top copper producer Chile's mines.

Guillier said he wanted to give local governments more power. Chile should build more smelters for its mines to replace its increasingly dated ones, he said.

Guillier's main Nueva Mayoria opponent is another former president, Ricardo Lagos, who is seen as a more steady, business-friendly prospect. Lagos, 78, is a hero of the democracy movement that ousted former dictator Augusto Pinochet but has struggled to gain momentum against Guillier.

"Each era has its musicians, its poets, its philosophers, but times change and we want new ones," Guillier said.

(Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien; editing by Grant McCool)

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