Joaquin Lavin, a 46-year-old U.S.-trained economist and former supporter of onetime Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, turned Sunday's presidential race into a closer contest than expected by distancing himself from Pinochet's legacy.

His strong bid for president--which has forced a runoff next month with Socialist Ricardo Lagos, the candidate of Chile's governing center-left Concertacion coalition--brought back the right wing as a powerful political force here. Analysts said Lavin's chances of winning the runoff are fairly good--meaning that the right wing, long defined by Pinochet, could once again be in power here just 10 years after his dictatorship ended. And this time, it would be the people's choice.

In a country that still has nightmares about Pinochet's ruthless 17-year regime, Lavin won strong support in large part because Pinochet is not here, political experts said. The former dictator is under house arrest in London fighting extradition to Spain, where a judge wants to put him on trial in connection with the torture, killing and disappearance of opponents during his rule.

In the two democratic elections since Pinochet stepped down in 1990, Concertacion won easily--in part, analysts said, because Pinochet's larger-than-life presence created the impression that voters were choosing between democracy with Concertacion and a return to dictatorship with a right wing still headed by Pinochet.

Now Pinochet's absence has given Lavin, who has largely disavowed Pinochet, the space he needed to distinguish his right-wing coalition from Pinochet's legacy. He has done that by positioning himself as a "nonpolitical" candidate who, as he said Sunday night, wants to promote a "new Chile where we no longer have divisions, where we no longer have a right or a left."

"If Pinochet were here, he never would have permitted Lavin to go around condemning him as Lavin has done," said Pepe Auth, a political analyst and vice president of the Party for Democracy, a member of the ruling coalition. "He's given Lavin this window by being out of sight. It's allowed Lavin to shift to the center, dispel any association with the regime and issue what has basically been a leftist and very populist discourse of support for the poor and the justice system."

That strategy paid off for Lavin. Pollsters expected him to lose by 3 to 6 percentage points; instead, he won 47.52 percent of the vote, less than half a percentage point behind Lagos Lagos. The runoff is set for Jan. 16.

Lagos, a moderate Socialist, an economist with a degree from Duke University and a dissident during the Pinochet era, had been considered the front-runner, but now he faces a formidable fight. His campaign has been woefully run and is quickly running out of funds. Meanwhile, Lavin has appropriated Lagos's message of economic equality and and brought it new life.

That leaves Lagos with two big issues, democracy and human rights. He has stressed the need to deepen Chile's young democracy, which is still restricted by a system of appointed senators under the current constitution--a charter drafted during the Pinochet era. He has also called for broader investigations into crimes committed under Pinochet's rule, during which more than 3,000 dissidents were killed or disappeared.

But no matter how intensely the world spotlight shines on Chile and Pinochet's legacy, most people here do not want to face the past, analysts say. "Justice is important. . . . I understand that there are family members who are still suffering" because of the dictatorship, said laundress Maria Eugenia Contreras, 34, who voted for Lavin. "But I think we need to look ahead now, not behind. Lagos to me is the past. I don't want to go back to that. Lavin is so young . . . and I really believe he's going to help the poor."

Yet analysts say it will be difficult for Lavin to carry out his bold promise of change if he wins the presidency. Although he may believe in his more liberal vision, his core support comes from a wealthy arch-conservative class that still supports Pinochet and his ideals--which include intolerance, a paternal attitude toward the poor and the protection of elite economic interests.

"Lavin is all about marketing--he's about selling an image of what he knows people want," said Ricardo Israel, director of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Chile. "The people want change . . . but the reality is the people funding Lavin don't share that position, and they are going to make it very difficult for him to effect change."