A former leftist activist who spent 14 years in jail appeared likely to win Sunday's runoff presidential elections in Uruguay against a conservative ex-president as voters in the northeast brave floodwaters to cast their ballots.
The presidential candidate of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party Jose Mujica.(AFP Photo)
Some 2.5 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's polls made necessary last October, when former rebel Jose Mujica won about 48 percent support, falling short of the majority needed to beat former president Luis Lacalle, who garnered around 28 percent.
With opinion polls placing him six to eight points ahead of his rival, Mujica is nonetheless viewed with suspicion by some of the country's conservatives because he was a founder of the Marxist Tupamaros guerilla movement.
The former rebel also makes no secret of his admiration for bombastic leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, though he has said he styles himself more along the political lines of Brazil's populist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
"My model is Lula because he uses this model that makes permanent negotiation the center of his policy," Mujica, told Uruguay's Busqueda weekly.
He was held in prison for 14 years before his release in 1985, when democracy was restored to Uruguay after its 1973-1985 dictatorship.
A former agriculture minister between 2005 and 2008, Mujica, 74, has cultivated an informal style, largely eschewing suits, and tends to speak in an off-the-cuff manner that delights his supporters.
When center-right former president Jorge Battle suggested that the Tupamaros movement had links to a recently uncovered weapons cache, Mujica gave a characteristically flamboyant response.
"I'm going to send him a bottle of Viagra so he can amuse himself with more useful things than saying this kind of crap," said Mujica, who also goes by the nickname "Pepe."
Despite his colorful pronouncements and background, Mujica's political platform is far from radical, analysts say.
His running mate is former finance minister Danilo Astori, considered a political pragmatist, and the pair are running on a platform that would maintain the economic policies of popular outgoing President Tabare Vazquez.
Vazquez, 69, who is constitutionally prohibited from running for office again, has a 71 percent approval rating thanks in large part to economic policies that have allowed Uruguay to avoid a recession while keeping unemployment low and even reducing poverty levels from 26 percent in 2007 to 20.5 percent in 2008.
Mujica and Vazquez have traded the most barbs over abortion.
The outgoing president vetoed a law last year that would have decriminalized the procedure, but Mujica has said he would not do the same.
Lacalle, 68, who served as conservative president of Uruguay between 1990 and 1995, is against abortion.
He has also distanced himself from the Vasquez government by pledging to abolish an income tax they imposed.
Despite garnering significantly less of the vote than Mujica in the first round, Lacalle could win over a number of supporters from center-right candidate Pedro Bordaberry, who was eliminated after garnering around 16 percent of the October vote.
Lacalle has campaigned in large part on a law and order platform, running advertisements featuring shop surveillance footage from robberies, but his efforts may be in vain, with recent polls showing him at least five points behind Mujica.
Ballot stations will open from 8:00 am (1000 GMT) to 7:30 pm (2130 GMT), with preliminary results expected about an hour after closing.
Weather reports forecast thunderstorms for Sunday afternoon, but voters will face the biggest difficulties in the northeast where widespread floods have forced more than 6,000 people to evacuate their homes.
Military transport will be mobilized to help stranded voters reach their precincts, Electoral Tribunal Minister Edgardo Martinez Zimarioff told AFP.