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Ex-guerrilla wins Uruguay presidential election

A blunt former guerrilla won Uruguay's presidential election, promising to leave behind his radical past and take a moderate path in one of Latin America's most stable countries.
Image: Jose Mujica, Tabare Vazquez
Uruguay's president-elect Jose Mujica, left, gestures to supporters accompanied by President Tabare Vazquez in Montevideo on Sunday. The vote crowned Mujica's decades-long transformation from a militant who waged an armed revolt against the right-wing government  in the 1960s and 1970s into one of the country's most popular politicians. Natacha Pisarenko / AP
/ Source: Reuters

A blunt-talking former guerrilla fighter won Uruguay's presidential election Sunday, promising to leave behind his radical past and take a moderate path in one of Latin America's most stable countries.

Jose Mujica, a 74-year-old ex-senator, claimed victory after his rival, conservative former President Luis Lacalle, conceded the race with pollsters' projections showing Mujica ahead with around 51 percent of the vote.

Mujica is expected to maintain the investor-friendly policies of popular outgoing President Tabare Vazquez, who is from the same leftist coalition and has overseen strong economic growth.

"Thank you, Tabare,'' Mujica said, addressing thousands of chanting supporters. "We have won because of your government and we will continue it.''

The president-elect said he aims to emulate Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Latin America's leading moderate leftist, and dismissed critics who warned he may align Uruguay with the region's hard-line left led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The vote crowned Mujica's decades-long transformation from a militant who waged an armed revolt against Uruguay's right-wing government in the 1960s and 1970s into one of the country's most popular politicians.

Shot, tortured
Lacalle recognized Mujica's victory before early official results were released. Thousands of Mujica supporters filled the streets of downtown Montevideo, honking car horns and waving flags to celebrate in a downpour of rain.

Known simply as "Pepe,'' he was a leader of the Tupamaros guerrilla movement that carried out robberies, political kidnappings and bombings against the government.

He says he was shot six times, tortured, and held by security forces in solitary confinement in a deep well. He was freed under an amnesty enacted following the end of Uruguay's 1973-1985 military dictatorship.

Mujica inherits an economy that has grown at an average annual rate of 7 percent under Vazquez, who took office in 2005 and ends his presidency with approval ratings above 60 percent.

The agricultural-based economy has been buoyed by beef exports and higher commodities prices in recent years.

Vazquez also pushed a progressive income tax to fund social programs that have reduced poverty and pushed unemployment to its lowest level in decades. The constitution does not allow presidents to seek a second consecutive term.

Mujica overcame concerns among some Uruguayans about his political history, saying he now believes economic development will stamp out poverty.

Rarely seen in a suit and tie, he is popular with the poor and working class who like his blunt manner. However, critics are troubled by his undiplomatic outbursts, including putdowns of the government in neighboring Argentina.

Sharp tongue
Mujica acknowledged his sharp tongue in his victory speech.

''If at some point my temperament, which is combative, has let my tongue get away from me, I ask for forgiveness,'' he said.

Still, some Mujica supporters said they were drawn to his style. ``I like the fact he speaks his mind even though I don't always agree with him,'' said Maria Noel Gonzalez, a 24-year-old cook.

Mujica became a key figure in transforming the Tupamaros into a political party, which joined with socialists and other leftists to create the Broad Front and ended more than 100 years of dominance by Uruguay's traditional parties when Vazquez won the presidency.

Lacalle, a 68-year-year-old lawyer who was president from 1990 to 1995, campaigned on pledges to shrink the size of government and reduce crime.

Mujica won the most votes in the first round of the election on Oct. 25, finishing with 48 percent to 29 percent for Lacalle, but fell short of the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off.

He takes office for a five year-term on March 1, and will have a congressional majority. Vazquez's management of the economy gave a lift to Mujica, even though he is politically to the left of the current Uruguayan leader.

Hoping to send a sign of economic continuity, Mujica tapped Vazquez's former economy minister, Danilo Astori, as his running mate and said he will be responsible for economic policy. Astori won praise from Wall Street during his tenure.

The economy is expected to expand 1.2 percent this year, slowed by the global financial crisis, and analysts say a slower economic growth could affect the funding of the social programs at the center of the Broad Front's government program.

Mujica plans to donate most of his presidential salary to fund low-income housing projects.