By Alexandra Ulmer
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean President Sebastian Pinera explicitly endorsed his weakened right-wing coalition's candidate a month before a presidential election that polls show will likely mark the return of the center-left.
Pinera's comments on Saturday backing his former labor minister Evelyn Matthei mark his most public show of support for the candidate struggling in the shadows of popular front-runner Michelle Bachelet.
Center-leftist Bachelet, Chile's first female president who governed from 2006 to 2010, has for months been expected to cruise to victory in the November 17 general election or a potential December 15 runoff against a fractured right.
But a recent poll on voting intentions putting Matthei behind Bachelet and only a few points ahead of maverick economist Franco Parisi sparked fears on the right that she is losing votes to other small-party or independent candidates.
Matthei's sharp tongue, her ties to the unpopular Pinera administration and family links to the 1973-1990 dictatorship have her struggling in the race to upset Bachelet, whose amiable style and promises to redress income inequality position her as a near shoo-in.
But Pinera, who hails from the Renovacion Nacional (RN) party, stressed that Matthei, a fiery economist from the more conservative Union Democrata Independiente (UDI) party, has the know-how to run the country.
"She's a great candidate and has all it takes to be a great president of Chile," Pinera said, flanked by Matthei during a ceremony to mark the two-year anniversary of his six-month maternity leave policy.
Some on the right feel Pinera hasn't done enough to bolster the candidacy of Matthei, who became the Alianza coalition's candidate in July after the former front-runner quit due to depression.
Billionaire businessman Pinera has clocked the lowest approval ratings for a Chilean president since the return to democracy, largely because he has been unable to connect with ordinary Chileans despite strong economic growth.
He is barred by the constitution from running for a second consecutive term, though he is eligible to run for the 2018-2022 period.
This is the first time two women are presidential front-runners in Chile. Bachelet and Matthei have known each other since childhood, as both their fathers were air force generals.
But Bachelet's father was loyal to socialist President Salvador Allende, who was ousted in a 1973 military coup that ushered in the brutal, 17-year Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Her father was subsequently arrested and tortured by Pinochet's agents and died in prison months later.
Matthei's father, however, was a member of the junta.
Links between Matthei's family and the dictatorship have been in the limelight throughout the campaign, as Chile wrestles with Pinochet's legacy 40 years after the coup.
Bachelet is seen garnering 33 percent of likely votes in the first round of the election, versus 23 percent for Matthei and 15 percent for Parisi, a poll showed this week.
A poll in August 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.
A runoff will be called if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes in November.
However, a surprising dearth of polls and the fact that voting in Chile is now voluntary has injected a dose of risk in making projections.
Still, Bachelet appears poised to stage a comeback, so 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.
She has vowed to redress steep economic inequality in the Andean country, overhaul the dictatorship-era constitution and hike corporate taxes to help fund an education reform.
Matthei's policy proposals seek to continue the incumbent government's strategies without the tax reform that is Bachelet's centerpiece.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Eric Beech)