By Alexandra Ulmer
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Center-left candidate Michelle Bachelet is the favorite to win Chile's presidential election, but rivals gaining ground may push the vote into a run-off, according to an Ipsos poll on voting intentions.
Bachelet, who was Chile's first female president from 2006 to 2010, is seen garnering 33 percent of likely votes in the first round of the general election on November 17.
Some 23 percent of probable voters said they would cast their ballot for the right wing's candidate Evelyn Matthei, a fiery former labor minister.
Independent candidate Franco Parisi, a maverick economist who criticizes the political establishment, polled 15 percent, backing up anecdotal evidence that he is gaining in popularity.
Should Bachelet fail to seize over 50 percent of votes next month, the election would be pushed to a December 15 run-off.
None of the other eight candidates is as seen standing much of a chance against pediatrician-turned-politician Bachelet, who has promised to combat steep inequality in the world's No. 1 copper producer and is widely liked for her amiable style.
Still, the Ipsos poll, published Monday night, injects a dose of uncertainty ahead of the vote.
"Bachelet has an obvious electoral advantage," said Guillermo Holzmann, a political analyst at the University of Valparaiso. "There remains uncertainty as to whether she can win or not in the first round," he added, calling that difficult but not impossible.
Analysts also doubt whether her Nueva Mayoria coalition will have a strong enough showing in Congress to push through her ambitious reforms.
DEARTH OF POLLS
An unusual dearth of polls have made projections a trickier business than previously in stable Chile.
Surveys have been struggling to adequately poll the Andean country, chiefly because this will be the first time voting will be voluntary in a presidential election. It's unclear how many Chileans will vote, so many pollsters want to avoid ending up red-faced the day after the election, analysts say.
The costs of running polls and the fact the turmoil-hit Right has essentially had three front-runners in six months are further deterrents.
One of the most recent, established surveys by pollster CEP said around 44 percent of Chileans are rooting for a comeback by Bachelet, versus 12 percent in favor of Matthei and 4 percent for Parisi.
But Matthei had only just been named the right-wing Alianza bloc's candidate after the former front-runner dropped his bid, raising questions about whether she may have gained ground since the poll published in late August.
The Ipsos poll reports 7 percent of likely voters plan to cast their ballot for left-leaning Marco Enriquez-Ominami, 5 percent for leftist economist Marcel Claude, and 10 percent say they don't know.
The poll, conducted between September 24 and October 4, included 985 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent. It gives voting intentions only for the 49 percent of interviewees deemed 'likely voters'.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)