Chilean centre-right's hopes sag as top candidate quits race

SANTIAGO Tue Apr 30, 2013 1:34am BST

Laurence Golborne, Chile's Minister of Mining and Energy, answers a question during an interview as part of the Reuters Latam Summit in Santiago March 31, 2011. REUTERS/Victor Ruiz Caballero

Laurence Golborne, Chile's Minister of Mining and Energy, answers a question during an interview as part of the Reuters Latam Summit in Santiago March 31, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Victor Ruiz Caballero

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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean businessman Laurence Golborne abandoned his presidential candidacy on Monday over a billing scandal and allegations of undeclared offshore assets, dealing a blow to the ruling centre-right coalition's hopes of retaining power in the November election.

"I don't want to be an obstacle ... right now I'm withdrawing my candidacy," Golborne, a former public works and mining minister who spearheaded the 2010 rescue of 33 trapped miners in the Atacama desert, said at a news conference in Santiago.

The charismatic Golborne, an independent who was backed by the UDI political party, was widely seen as the conservative with the best shot at defeating Michelle Bachelet, a former president and the frontrunner to lead the centre-left in the November 17 vote.

The UDI said it was tapping Economy and Tourism Minister Pablo Longueira, a veteran politician who was close to former dictator Augusto Pinochet, to replace Golborne. Longueira, who had a 50 percent approval rating in March, according to pollster Adimark, will likely face a June 30 primary against former Defence Minister Andres Allamand.

The shake-up in the presidential race came after Chile's top court fined retailer Cencosud about $70 million (45.1 million pounds) last week for overcharging some 600,000 customers in its supermarket unit in 2006, when Golborne was the company's chief executive officer.

Chilean newspaper El Sur reported over the weekend that Golborne has undeclared investments in accounts held in the British Virgin Islands, and other media picked up on the report. Golborne said the accounts complied with tax rules.

But his muddled Defence of his responsibility in the Cencosud scandal added to criticism that he was politically inexperienced. Golborne initially said it was unclear if there had been abuse, and then declared he had merely gone along with the Cencosud board's decision.

There is significant distrust of business executives in Chile, the world's No. 1 copper producer.

Its centre-right coalition has been unable to capitalize on robust economic growth and low unemployment under the stewardship of President Sebastian Pinera, who is ranked the most unpopular president in two decades.

Pinera, a billionaire who used to run an airline, has been battered by protests demanding free education for all in Chile, which has the highest income inequality among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Pinera is constitutionally barred from running for a second consecutive term as president.

Most polls show that Bachelet, a paediatrician who ruled from 2006 to 2010, will easily win the presidential election if she gets the backing of the centre-left as expected.

She has said she would pursue major tax reform, change the constitution and "work towards" free education if elected.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Terry Wade and Paul Simao)