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Pinera's rating rises but still seen as liability to his coalition

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera speaks at the close of the VII Pacific Allianz Summit in Cali May 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga
Chile's President Sebastian Pinera speaks at the close of the VII Pacific Allianz Summit in Cali May 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean President Sebastian Pinera's popularity bounced to a two-year high of 40 percent in May, but any candidate who represents his ruling coalition faces an uphill battle in November's presidential election, analysts said on Wednesday.

Pinera, a former airline magnate, has had the lowest popularity ratings for any president since the end of Augusto Pinochet's brutal dictatorship in 1990, as Chileans demand better education and wealth distribution in the world's No. 1 copper producer.

He is barred from running for re-election on November 17 and any candidate put forward by his right-wing Alianza coalition is seen struggling to beat poll favorite Michelle Bachelet, a former center-left president who governed from 2006 to 2010.

"Pinera continues to be a liability for the Alianza," said Patricio Navia, a professor at the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago.

Former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, a veteran party member who was close to Pinochet, and former Defense Minister Andres Allamand, another seasoned politician, are jostling to be Alianza's candidate. They will face off in a June 30 primary.

Pinera's approval rating rose six percentage points in May from April's 34 percent, pollster Adimark said on Wednesday.

The increase likely reflected his strong response to rekindled land disputes with neighbors Peru and Bolivia. The state's suspension of Barrick Gold's Pascua-Lama project on environmental grounds was also viewed positively.

"Forty percent is good for Pinera, but relatively speaking it's still pretty low," said Risa Grais-Targow, Latin American analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington. "I don't think it's a game changer. The structural factors still really favor Bachelet."

Pinera has largely been unable to capitalize on robust economic growth in the Andean country, which has the widest gap between rich and poor among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

His approval rating sank to an all-time low of 26 percent in April 2012 amid protests to reform education and complaints that a tax reform scheme did not go far enough.

Adimark polled 1,401 people between May 6 and June 1, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Hilary Burke and Philip Barbara)

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