SANTIAGO, Chile -- The government coalition of Socialist President Ricardo Lagos appeared to retain control of the lower House in nationwide congressional election Sunday. Its one-vote edge in the Senate over the right-wing opposition was endangered.
The party supporting former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet appeared likely to become Chile's largest political party.
With 94 percent of more than 7 million votes counted, the government's Coalition for Democracy had 47.8 percent, a moderate decline from the 50 percent it received in the legislative election four years ago.
The right-wing opposition, the Alliance for Chile, had 44 percent, a substantial gain from its 30 percent in 1997. Most of the gains were for the Independent Democratic Union, UDI, a far-right party made up mostly of Pinochet supporters. The 86-year-old Pinochet did not vote because he was in bed with laryngitis, said his spokesman, retired Gen. Guillermo Garin.
The UDI appeared bound to become Chile's largest political party with 26 percent, displacing the pro-government Christian Democratic Party.
The remaining votes went to minor groups, such as the Communist Party, whose 5.2 percent was barely above the 5 percent required to maintain legal recognition.
Although the government center-left coalition appeared certain to retain control of the lower House, its current 70-50 majority over the right-wing opposition was narrowed.
The government's control of the Senate appeared uncertain, as the opposition won the seat vacated by an independent senator who did not seek re-election. That would establish a virtual tie in the Senate.
Only half of the Senate's 36 seats were at stake. In addition to the 36 elected lawmakers, the Senate also has nine appointed members.
Sunday's election was the first major political test for Lagos' 19-month-old government, which is battling a lingering economic crisis, including a 9.7 percent unemployment rate.
The government showed satisfaction for the results.
"Voters have clearly backed the government," spokesman Claudio Huepe said. "We have a clear advantage over the right, in spite of the current economic difficulties and the high unemployment rate."
Huepe repeated the government claim that Chile's economic difficulties are mainly the result of an international crisis.
Earlier, Lagos called the election a test of popular sentiment toward his government, and promised "to hear what the people say with their votes."
"The people will judge what we have done, they are the judges," Lagos said after casting his vote at a downtown Santiago school.
Right-wing leaders were jubilant.
"This election shows that our alliance is a real alternative of government in the election four years from now," said Santiago Mayor Joaquin Lavin, the main opposition leader.
Lavin, who forced Lagos to an unprecedented, tight runoff two years ago, has made clear he intends to take a new shot at the presidency.