By Alexandra Ulmer
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Popular center-left candidate Michelle Bachelet is poised to win Chile's presidential election next month, but eight other candidates jostling in the first round may push the vote to a runoff, a poll showed on Thursday.
Bachelet, who was Chile's first female president from 2006 to 2010, would draw 37.7 percent of votes in the November 17 general election, according to a poll by the Universidad Diego Portales (UDP).
Bachelet would need to garner more than 50 percent of votes to avoid a runoff, which no candidate has done since 1993.
The right wing's struggling candidate, Evelyn Matthei, was expected to win 12.3 percent of votes, barely ahead of maverick economist Franco Parisi, who drew 10.6 percent in the survey.
The poll was likely to spook the ruling right-wing with Matthei, President Sebastian Pinera's former labor minister, losing ground just weeks from the showdown.
Should there be a runoff between Chile's first two women front-runners, Bachelet would pocket 47.4 percent of votes to Matthei's 17.2 percent. Bachelet would win 44.5 percent against Parisi's 18.8 percent, according to the poll.
Bachelet's amiable style, her promise to combat steep inequality in the world's No. 1 copper producer and a weakened right position the pediatrician-turned-politician as a near shoo-in.
Matthei, who only became the right's candidate in July, is hampered by her sharp tongue, ties to the unpopular Pinera administration and family links to the 1973-1990 dictatorship.
Bachelet's core voters are low-income or elderly, Matthei's high-income and also elderly, while Parisi's are chiefly young and from a wide political spectrum, the poll reported.
Since Bachelet is seen breezing to a win in November or December, much of the political debate now rests on whether her Nueva Mayoria bloc will have enough clout in Congress to push through her ambitious reforms.
These include overhauling the dictatorship-era constitution and hiking corporate taxes to help fund an education reform.
Bachelet will have to wrestle with sky-high expectations in a country where many are clamoring for improved education, health care and pensions.
While Chile is one of Latin America's most stable countries and has had great success in reducing extreme poverty, many feel they haven't benefited from a massive mining boom and say wealth remains in the hands of a few affluent families.
Around 42.2 percent of those polled say a potential second Bachelet government would be better than the previous one, 39.3 said it would be the same and 9.6 percent said it would be worse.
Some on the left question why Bachelet didn't implement her current policy proposals during her presidency. That disenchantment has helped smaller party and independent candidates gain clout in this year's campaign.
A surprising dearth of polls and the fact that voting in Chile is now voluntary has injected a dose of risk in making projections.
Thursday's poll showed a wider gap between Bachelet and Matthei than the one reported in an Ipsos poll earlier this month, which gave Bachelet 33 percent of likely votes to Matthei's 23 percent.
The UDP poll, conducted between September 2 and October 10, included 1,300 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.72 percent.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Doina Chiacu)