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Chile economy, foreign policy propel Pinera approval near two-year high

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

* Pinera's approval at 38 pct in February vs. 32 pct in Sept

* Billionaire businessman has been dogged by low popularity

* Economy roaring though inequality remains issue

SANTIAGO, March 5 (Reuters) - Conservative billionaire President Sebastian Pinera's popularity rebounded to 38 percent in February, a near two-year high, on approval of Chile's robust economic growth and foreign policy, pollster Adimark said on Tuesday.

Former airline magnate Pinera has been dogged by the lowest popularity levels for any president since the end of Augusto Pinochet's brutal dictatorship in 1990, amid demands for improved education and wealth distribution in Chile.

But it appears the world No. 1 copper producer's brisk economic expansion, low unemployment levels and high investment rates have started to benefit Pinera, who took over in 2010.

Territorial conflicts with neighbors Peru and Bolivia that have recently resurfaced also appeared to have boosted Pinera, who is barred by the constitution from running for a second consecutive term in November's presidential election.

His approval level recovered from a 32 percent rate in September, when the previous Adimark poll was released, to reach its highest level since May 2011.

It had dipped to an all-time low of 26 percent in April amid protests to reform the country's costly and stratified education system and complaints the government's planned tax reform didn't go far enough.

While Chile is upheld as a model for economic growth in Latin America, it has the highest income inequality among OECD countries and the rate has barely fallen since 1990, according to a report by the organization in 2011.

Many Chileans think Pinera is able to face crises and solve problems but he doesn't inspire confidence, Tuesday's poll showed. Roughly 51 percent of those polled said they disapprove of Pinera.

The fractured left-wing coalition, which Pinera ousted from a 20-year rule, is hoping popular former President Michelle Bachelet will stage a comeback in the November election.

Former Public Works Minister Laurence Golborne and former Defense Minister Andres Allamand are jostling to be the right-wing bloc's candidate.

Adimark polled 1,421 people between Feb. 4 and Feb. 28.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130305/chile-economy-foreign-policy-propel-pinera-approval-near-two-ye