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Former guerrilla wins Uruguay run-off vote

A supporter of Jose “Pepe’’ Mujica, of the ruling party Frente Amplio, celebrated after polls closed yesterday in Montevideo. A supporter of Jose “Pepe’’ Mujica, of the ruling party Frente Amplio, celebrated after polls closed yesterday in Montevideo. (Natacha Pisarenko/ Associated Press)
By Michael Warren
Associated Press / November 30, 2009

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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - A plain-talking socialist who once led an armed revolutionary movement and now scorns “stupid ideologies’’ won Uruguay’s presidential run-off yesterday, keeping the ruling center-left coalition in power, according to three exit polls.

Jose Mujica won more than 50 percent of the votes cast in a run-off election, according to exit polls by the South American country’s three leading pollsters, giving the center-left Broad Front coalition five more years in power.

Luis A. Lacalle, the former president, of the center-right National Party conceded defeat. He trailed with about 45 percent of the votes, exit polls by Cifra, Factum, and Equipos Mori said.

Mujica’s victory keeps the Broad Front center-left coalition in power for another five-year term beginning March 1. The former Tupamaro guerrilla said he will continue the policies of popular President Tabare Vazquez and work to unify Latin America. Mujica’s rebellion in the 1960s caused so much chaos that Uruguayans initially welcomed the 1973-85 dictatorship. He spent all that time in prison, an experience he said cured him of any illusion that armed revolution can achieve lasting social change.

Lacalle said his rival would transform the South American country into a radical socialist state, but Mujica campaigned as a consensus builder, and most voters were apparently convinced he would govern from the center.

Mujica’s victory also gave the Broad Front a narrow majority in Congress, where his wife, Senator Lucia Topolansky, was the top-vote getter and therefore is now third in line to the presidency, after Vice President-elect Danilo Astori.

Lacalle, a scion of Uruguay’s political elite, finished second with 29 percent in October’s first-round election, and picked up most of the third-place, right-wing Colorado Party voters, but it wasn’t enough to defeat Mujica.

Mujica, 74, vowed to do everything possible to build bridges and avoid creating an atmosphere of tension and drama. He said negotiation and dialogue would be his tools, and cited President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil as his inspiration.

The National Party traded power with the right-wing Colorado Party for 150 years until the Broad Front pulled enough leftist factions together five years ago to give Vazquez a presidential victory.

Many voters said the single five-year term required by Uruguay’s constitution wasn’t enough to consolidate the successes of Vazquez, a Marxist oncologist and former Montevideo mayor who enjoyed 71 percent approval ratings in a poll this month.

Vazquez imposed a progressive income tax, using the additional revenue to lower unemployment and poverty, provide equal access to health care to everyone under 18, and steer the economy to 1.9 percent growth this year even as many other economies shrank.

Lacalle, in contrast, was a champion of privatization during his 1990-95 term and vowed this time to eliminate the income tax and “take a chain saw’’ to state bureaucracies. But he also acknowledged Vazquez’s successes, saying he would make no major changes in economic policies.

Mujica cofounded the Tupamaros, one of many Latin American leftist rebel groups inspired by the Cuban revolution in the 1960s to organize kidnappings, bombings, robberies, and other attacks on US-backed right-wing governments. Convicted of killing a policeman in 1971, he endured torture and solitary confinement during nearly 15 years in prison.