Uruguay vote pits ex-guerrilla against former conservative president

Polls show that former leftist rebel José Mujica is expected to gain the most votes in Sunday's election, but could fall short of defeating Luis Alberto Lacalle outright, sparking a run-off.

Matilde Campodonico/AP
People line up to vote in Uruguay's general elections at a school used as a polling station in Montevideo, on Sunday.

The frontrunner in Uruguay's presidential election Sunday is a former guerilla commander who once sought to bring a socialist revolution to this South American nation. His main competitor is a conservative former president.

But this is not another battleground for the radical left in Latin America.

As Uruguayans cast their ballots Sunday, they are choosing between market-friendly candidates whose platforms vary remarkably little.

Polls show that former rebel José Mujica, candidate of the Broad Front coalition of left-leaning parties, is expected to gain the most votes, but could fall short of the 50 percent majority needed to win outright. He is trailed by Luis Alberto Lacalle, a former president and candidate for one of Uruguay's traditional parties, the National Party-Whites.

"We do not have the degrees of polarization as in other countries," says Maria Fernanda Boidi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Montevideo. "Uruguay might turn a bit to the center right, if Lacalle wins, or even a bit more to the left if Mujica is elected. But it will be nothing to the extremes, as you might expect in changes in other countries."

Headed for a runoff?

The left has grown steadily in Uruguay since the Broad Front was formed in 1971, first winning the presidency in 2004 when President Tabare Vazquez won in the first round with 50.45 percent of votes. It was the first time that a party other than the two traditional ruling parties won the executive post.

In this election, however, most are predicting that Mr. Mujica will not garner enough votes to avoid a run-off election in November. That is, in part, because the Broad Front can no longer claim outsider status, says Jeffrey Cason, a Latin America specialist at Middlebury College in Vermont. Instead, it bears responsibility for the ups and downs of the past five years.

President Vazquez, who has not altered the economic path of the nation but has earmarked more money to social programs that have buoyed the poor, has enjoyed support from those even outside his political party. Mr. Mujica promises to follow in his footsteps.

Crime now a top issue

Yet while Uruguay's economy is expected to grow slightly this year, and generally residents are satisfied with its direction, Vazquez introduced a controversial tax reform that alienated some, says Ms. Boidi. And she says his administration has faltered on crime, which topped voter concerns ahead of the economy for the first time in decades this year. "Lacalle is serious about combating crime, which has been absent in Mujica's campaign," she says. "People mostly think Vazquez has been inefficient in dealing with crime. It is the stone in the shoe of the government."

Mujica has warned that Lacalle, who was president from 1990 to 1995, could represent a return to the past, without giving the left a chance to carry out its social transformation. Lacalle, in turn, has painted Mujica as a Cold War figure, playing on fears of his radical past, which landed him in jail for over a decade after belonging to the guerilla organization in the 60s and 70s.

When democracy came to Uruguay in 1985, after more than a decade of military dictatorship, the Tupamaros transformed into a political group, folding into the Broad Front.

"Because of his guerilla past, [he is being painted as] potentially a wolf in sheep's clothing," says Mr. Cason. "In some ways, Uruguay continues to fight the Cold War, well after it is over."

Few suspect either leading candidate would turn the country in a radically different direction. While Mujica might deepen social programs, Lacalle would likely focus more on foreign investment and enterprise, Boidi says. In either case, she says, any radical impulses would be reined in by their own parties and opposition members of parliament, whose seats are up for election Sunday, too.

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