By Rosalba O'Brien
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Four decades after a military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile, a fierce debate over his long rule has shaken up the presidential election, with some right-wing politicians under fire for their past support of the former dictator.
Pinochet, who was then the head of the army, toppled the democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a violent coup on September 11, 1973.
He finally gave up power in 1990 and died in 2006, but Pinochet and his legacy have again dominated Chile's politics in recent weeks as the 40th anniversary of the coup approaches.
The rightist Alianza bloc's already weak chance of victory in November's election has been further damaged by the association of its more extreme UDI party with the coup.
Many UDI politicians supported Pinochet, and continue to justify the military takeover by citing the chaos of the Allende years.
That is something the left-leaning bloc has leapt upon.
"There are facts that are not known, justice that hasn't come, pain and wounds that haven't healed. And there are people who do not recognize nor repent over what they did and didn't do," Michelle Bachelet, a former president and the front-runner in this year's campaign, said last week on the campaign trail.
Bachelet was directly affected by the violent side of Pinochet's rule.
Her father, an air force general, remained loyal to Allende after the coup and was imprisoned, where he died of a heart attack after months of torture. Bachelet herself was also arrested and tortured and went into exile.
Bachelet's closest rival for the presidency is Evelyn Matthei, the nominee of the Alianza bloc.
Matthei's father was also an air force general, but he sided with Pinochet and she herself campaigned for the 'yes' vote in a 1988 referendum on whether Pinochet should remain president for eight more years. His defeat in that vote led to him step down in 1990.
In response to demands from leftist opponents for her to apologize, Matthei defended her record on human rights and said: "I was 20 years old when the coup happened. I don't have to ask forgiveness."
Incumbent President Sebastian Pinera, a moderate right-winger whose opposition to the dictatorship was key to his own electoral success, said Chile still had a way to go to reach reconciliation.
"Truth and justice are two moral imperatives for any society who lived through times as traumatic as those," he told journalists in a meeting at the presidential palace, La Moneda, to discuss the anniversary. "We still lack truth and justice."
Over 3,000 people "disappeared" - presumed killed by the military government - during the Pinochet years. Thousands of others were forced into exile or imprisoned in clandestine detention centers, where torture was carried out almost as a matter of routine.
Allende committed suicide in La Moneda as the troops moved in. Footage of the palace being strafed by the air force has become a potent symbol around the world of Chile's break with democracy.
This week, in a shabby building opposite La Moneda hung with an enormous Allende photo, union activists are preparing to commemorate the anniversary. They say reconciliation for them will be difficult until all those responsible for atrocities are brought to justice.
"For what my parents suffered, what we suffered, my children have seen me cry. Without wanting to, I have passed that pain to them and afterwards it will pass to my grandchildren," said 53-year-old Luis Ancapil.
Pinochet also pushed through free-market reforms that many believe set the foundation for Chile's economic progress. That has moderated criticism of his rule over the years, but perceptions of his dictatorship are increasingly negative.
Some 55 percent of Chileans now describe Pinochet's government as "all bad," compared with 35 percent just three years ago. Only 9 percent describe it as "all good," according to a poll released this week by research center CERC.
It has only been in recent years, with the advent of the Internet and cable television, that most Chileans have really started to learn the truth of what happened during the dictatorship, said Pablo Salvat, politics professor at the University of Alberto Hurtado in Santiago.
"The new generation is pushing. They want their parents to tell the truth, how it was, what happened, who is responsible."
About 75 percent of Chileans believe traces of the military dictatorship remain today, according to the CERC survey.
Pinochet's legacy lives on in a privatized education system, the subject of regular student protests, which Bachelet has pledged to reform.
To do that, however, she has to overcome another legacy of the Pinochet-era, an electoral system that makes it very difficult for any one party to gain a significant majority in Congress.
Bachelet wants to reform that too, but she would need to persuade the right to support her or win the sort of majority that is next to impossible under the current system.
The final part of her three-pronged initiative is to raise taxes in order to pay for the education reforms. Again, she would need to win over the skeptical Alianza.
"Probably no country has an experience like that, a democracy in which a minority can veto the majority and where the majority in the end cannot do what the people wanted when they voted for them," Bachelet complained recently.
Her supporters have high expectations she will deliver on her pledges, and might not accept compromises with the right, warned Salvat. "If Bachelet wins, she is going to have it difficult. ... People will go out on the street demanding she carries out the reforms she promised."
But the framework that Pinochet and his allies created cannot easily be dismantled, said Sergio Bitar, who served as a minister under both Allende and Bachelet, in an interview with Reuters. "The feeling is that you are in a cage."
(Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito and Antonio de la Jara; Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney)