SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) – Voters gave strong support to the center-left government of President Ricardo Lagos on Sunday in nationwide municipal elections seen as a crucial test ahead of next year’s presidential race, but the right-wing opposition won the key mayorship of Santiago.

With 81.4 percent of some 7 million votes cast for 2,144 city council members officially counted, the pro-government Coalition for Democracy had 48.01 percent to 37.73 percent for the opposition Alliance for Chile.

The government coalition also had won 199 of 345 mayoral races, while the opposition alliance had nearly 100, with 68.5 percent of those votes counted. The rest of the vote went to small groups and independents.

“This victory tonight guarantees us that a man or a woman of our coalition will be the winner” in next year’s presidential election, Lagos said. “There has been a tremendous popular support to the ideas of our coalition.”

However, in Santiago, the main mayoral race, opposition candidate and television personality Raul Alcaino defeated pro-government candidate, Jorge Schaulsohn, who conceded.

Alcaino was the hand-picked candidate to succeed Santiago’s Mayor Joaquin Lavin, who is leaving to make a run for president next year, and the result was seen as a personal victory for Lavin and as voter approval of his four-year term.

Lavin’s wife, Estela Leon, also was elected to the Santiago city council with the largest individual vote.

Rising crime rates in some large cities and high unemployment were major issues in the campaigning, but both the government and the opposition also transformed it into a test of their strategies for the December 2005 presidential election.

Calling the Santiago victory “the mother of all battles,” Lavin said “our next goal after tonight La Moneda,” the presidential palace.

Congressman Patricio Melero, a Lavin ally, told local National Television that Sunday’s election “marks the beginning of our presidential campaign.”

The situation is more complicated for the pro-government Coalition for Democracy, where at least five candidates are seeking the presidential nomination. Sunday’s vote was expected to help clarify the trends within the four-party coalition.

Lagos, who isn’t running for president because the constitution doesn’t allow consecutive terms, said Sunday he believes his coalition will again be able to agree on a single candidate.

“We were able to do so three times in the past,” since civilian rule was restored after the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Lagos told reporters. “I do not see why we would not be able to do it again.”

AP-ES-10-31-04 2236EST

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