Socialist Party candidate Michelle Bachelet led Chile's presidential election by more than 1 million votes Sunday but did not capture the majority needed to avoid a runoff next month, according to nearly complete returns.

With 96 percent of the ballots counted, Bachelet, a political prisoner during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and later a defense minister under a democratic government, received about 46 percent of the vote. She was trailed by two conservatives, Sebastian Pinera, one of Chile's wealthiest men who took about 25 percent, and Joaquin Lavin, a former mayor of Santiago, who had about 23 percent.

According to Chile's election laws, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top contenders will be scheduled for Jan. 15.

"Today we have won, the people have given me the first majority," said Bachelet who will face Pinera in the runoff. "Not even all the money of the candidate of the right can break the will of the majority on the night of January 15."

The campaign "shows how much Chile has changed," said Jorge Schaulsohn, one of Bachelet's campaign managers. "Michelle Bachelet is so atypical. She is a woman, single, separated. In the United States, a candidate like her wouldn't fly."

Bachelet's campaign staff celebrated as returns came in, noting that their candidate was ahead by more than a million votes in a country of about 16 million.

"Today, men and women are valued the same," Bachelet, who would become Chile's first female president, said after casting her ballot at a school in Santiago.

If elected, Bachelet, 54, is expected to continue to promote the market-based economic policies and expansion of domestic social programs that have marked the five-year term of President Ricardo Lagos. She has promised that at least half her cabinet would be composed of women.

Bachelet's father, an air force general who was jailed for his opposition to the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power, died of torture in prison. Bachelet was also imprisoned by the military government; she later lived in exile in Australia and Germany.

A former pediatrician, Bachelet was named health minister in 2000 and became the country's first female defense minister in 2002.

Pinochet, 90, under house arrest on corruption and human rights charges, did not vote in Sunday's election, the Associated Press reported.

Special correspondent Jonathan Franklin in Santiago contributed to this report.

Michelle Bachelet, outside a polling site in Santiago, in front of her daughter, Sofia. Bachelet won 46 percent of the presidential vote.