Ex-guerrilla favorite to win Uruguay presidency

A former guerrilla leader jailed by Uruguay's 1973-1985 military junta is seen likely to be elected this tiny South American nation's next president in polling starting on the weekend.
   
If Jose Mujica, 74, does indeed triumph, analysts believe he will continue leftwing economic policies introduced by outgoing President Tabare Vazquez, who is ending his single allowed five-year term on a wave of popularity.
   
Surveys put the rotund, scruffy and gray-haired Mujica -- better known in his country of 3.3 million inhabitants by the nickname "Pepe" -- well ahead of his rivals.
   
They include former president Luis Lacalle, who is the main figure in the conservative opposition, and Pedro Bordaberry, son of the country's 1973-1975 dictator.
   
But voting intentions suggest Mujica might not pass the 50-percent-plus-one vote threshold needed to be declared the outright winner on Sunday. In that case, a run-off between the top candidates will be held on November 29.
   
Alongside the presidential balloting on Sunday will be a referendum on whether the country should drop an amnesty against military and police personnel accused of crimes during the junta.
   
Up to now, Uruguayans have been split on the issue, with 47 percent in favor of the proposal and 40 percent against, according to a survey published this week by the daily Ultimas Noticias.
   
But on Monday the country's supreme court ruled the amnesty was unconstitutional in the case of a young Communist activist who was allegedly tortured and killed in 1974.
   
Expectations that the same finding could be applied to other similar cases has opened the prospect of public opinion squaring behind the referendum to definitively overturn the amnesty and turn the spotlight on the fate of 231 people who disappeared under the junta.
   
For Mujica, ascending to the presidency would be vindication for the wrongs he suffered under Uruguay's brutal regime, which had counterparts in other South American countries -- notably Argentina, Brazil and Chile -- around the same time.
   
As one of the founders of the Tupamaros urban rebel movement, Mujica suffered being shot nine times, as well as incarceration in 1970 by the country's then-democratic authorities as they set about largely crushing his group.
   
After twice escaping jail and being recaptured, he ended up behind bars and enduring long periods of solitary confinement as one of the prisoners of the military dictatorship installed in 1973, partly in response to his group's radicalism.
   
It was only when democracy returned in 1985 that he was freed under a general amnesty.
   
Married to a senator who also belonged to the Tupamaros, Mujica became a lawmaker himself in 1995 after the former rebel group converted itself into a political party as part of the leftwing Frente Amplio (Broad Front).
  
 Vazquez, also a member of Frente Amplio, in 2005 named Mujica agriculture minister, a post he held until March 2008, when he returned to the senate to launch his presidential bid.
  
 Analysts consider Mujica well-placed to see through Vazquez's economic policies aimed at regaining an investor-grade status for Uruguay, one of the few countries in the world not to sink into recession during the global financial crisis.
   
Vazquez's grasp of macroeconomics and "fight against poverty" were exemplary, even if he vacillated on joining regional blocs or sealing a free-trade agreement with the United States, one analyst, Juan Carlos Doyenart, said.
   
Lacalle, Mujica's 68-year-old rival and president between 1990 and 1995, has differentiated himself by defining firmer foreign policy goals, including improving often contentious ties with Argentina in preference to joining regional trade or political blocs.
   
Bordaberry, the youngest contender at 49, has sought to distance himself from his father's 1973 military coup, despite keeping his family name as he built a career in the previous conservative government's ministries.
   
He claims to represent a new, tolerant generation "chronologically different" from the preceding ones that so roiled his country's political landscape.
   
Pre-election surveys credit Mujica with 44 percent of voter intentions, Lacalle with 30 percent, and Bordaberry with 12 percent.

Source: AFP

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