SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Communist and other leftists were considered enemies of the state during Chile's military dictatorship, a 17-year period that saw thousands of people killed and disappeared for their politics.
But as this year's elections nears, former President Michelle Bachelet, who was detained and tortured under the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is reaching out to the now-legal Communist Party and other left-leaning groups in her bid to return to the nation's top post.
It's a politically pragmatic move in a country plagued by mounting social demands and frequent protests.
But it's also part of Bachelet's goal, assuming she regains the presidency, to oversee an overhaul of the education and tax systems, which would be the country's most wide-ranging reform in four decades.
Chile, the world's top producer of copper, is respected for its fast-growing economy, strong institutions and low unemployment. But it also has the worst inequality rate among the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
As a presidential candidate, Bachelet needs the backing of the Communists and liberal social groups in the face of mounting demands and protests clamoring for a wider distribution of Chile's copper wealth, the preservation of the environment and free education.
Chile currently has two major electoral blocs, the center-left Concertacion coalition Bachelet leads and a center-right grouping that has said it will not back her proposals. Belonging to the country's Socialist Party, Bachelet says a change in the constitution is needed to break with the two-coalition system in place since the military dictatorship and allow one side or another to collect enough votes for significant change.
Enormously popular in the last year of her 2006-2010 presidency, Bachelet is now the front-runner in the Nov. 17 vote. A survey by the pollster Centro de Estudios Publicos found that 54 percent of respondents who had made up their minds on a candidate said they would vote for Bachelet, far ahead of any other name. If that number holds, it would help her avoid a runoff election mandated if no candidate wins a majority of votes.
The CEP poll, conducted between November and December of last year, interviewed 1,484 people and had a margin of error of three percentage points.
Bachelet recently announced her plans to run for president after spending 2 1/2 years in New York as the first executive director of UN Women, the United Nations' new agency for women and gender issues.
"Given the characteristics of Michelle Bachelet, the question is not whether she'll win in the first or second round but whether she'll win the whole thing, and the answer is yes," said Bernardo Navarrete, a University of Santiago political scientist.
Bachelet hasn't directly mentioned courting the Communist Party but has echoed their demands for education and constitutional reform.
"Chile needs a founding document born in democracy, a constitution aligned with the present conditions of Chile, that guarantees the economic and social rights to all Chileans," Bachelet said while announcing her pre-candidacy last month.
The other leading political group in Chile is the center-right Coalition for Change, which has been unable to capitalize on the country's economic success under the bloc's standard-bearer President Sebastian Pinera. Pinera enjoyed only a 31 percent approval rating in the late-2012 poll, and 29 percent approval for his handling of the economy.
On top of that, the coalition was dealt a tough blow this week when its presidential candidate Laurence Golborne, a charismatic businessman seen by the Pinera government as its best hope, was forced out of the race by a financial scandal.
The coalition chose Economy Minister Pablo Longueira as his replacement. A veteran politician who was close to Pinochet, Longueira has criticized Bachelet for reaching out to the Communist Party and has indicated he would oppose any efforts to return to a more state-funded education system.
Bachelet's military father worked for Socialist President Salvador Allende and, like his wife and daughter Michelle, was detained and tortured after the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that ended Allende's rule. Bachelet's father eventually died of a heart attack in custody.
Pinochet pushed for the privatization of state enterprises and ended central control and funding of the nation's school system. Reversing those laws became a rallying cry during student marches over the past two years that have halted Chile and pushed education reform to the top of the national agenda.
Student leaders have focused their demands on restoring free, quality public education and have said they can bring about that change through votes, after previously pouring most of their energies into street protests.
Among the top Communist Party leaders Bachelet must woo is well-known student activist Camila Vallejo, who inspired millions during the education protests. Vallejo is running for Congress, part of a push by her party to win 10 legislative seats.
Without the backing of leftists such as Vallejo, Bachelet "would be unable to crystalize reform processes because she would lack enough votes," said Marcelo Mella, a political analyst at the University of Santiago.
But since Chile's return to democracy in 1990, the Communist Party has resisted joining the Concertacion coalition and instead banded with other more leftist groups. Vallejo has said she won't give Bachelet her vote or support without knowing more about her political agenda. The goal, Vallejo has said, is electing more non-Concertacion lawmakers who would support raising corporate taxes and undoing Pinochet-era education, health and pension reforms.
"What we need at this moment is a Congress that is mostly in the opposition and that has enough lawmakers to allow us to make changes," Vallejo told the University of Chile radio station in an interview.
"That's what we need in such a crucial moment. Even candidate Michelle Bachelet says it."