A former leftist guerrilla clinched victory in Uruguay's presidential run-off election on Sunday, but he did it by moving hard to the center and purposely distancing himself from Venezuela's radical leftist President Hugo Chávez.
José "Pepe" Mujica won more than 53 percent of the votes, extending the power of the ruling center-left Broad Front coalition, which is popular with Uruguayans for its mix of social programs and pro-business handling of the economy.
Conservative former president Luis Lacalle of the center-right National Party garnered only 43 percent at the ballot box, failing to gain ground by linking Mr. Mujica to Mr. Chávez.
Thousands yesterday evening streamed down to Montevideo's riverfront area next to Rio del Plata to hail Mujica. Supporters waved the red, white, and blue flags of the victorious party chanting: "I am of the Front."
Addressing the jubilant crowds, Mujica said in an impassioned speech: "Tomorrow the patriotism continues. Thank you compatriots. Thank you for continuing this government."
Moving away from Chávez
Mujica, who will begin a five-year term in March, fell short of an outright majority in the first round of voting in October. So, in this round, he highlighted his centrist credentials to win voters who feared he would align Uruguay with Venezuela, analysts say.
"[Voters] were afraid of the guerrilla past and the identification with Chávez," says Oscar Bottinelli, a political analyst and head of the Factum polling group in Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. "They were afraid he will affect liberty and be repressive."
Mujica on Friday dismissed Chávez's "21st-century socialism" model as "a lot of bureaucracy." He also called for a "very special" relationship with moderate leftist Brazilian leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But that didn't stop Chávez yesterday from welcoming Mujica into Latin America's leftist bloc. The fiery Venezuelan leader hailed Mujica as a "good revolutionary," saying "Pepe should be a big companion [of Venezuela]".
Power of his party
Analysts said Mujica's win was down to the popularity of his party rather than policies. President Tabare Vazquez, Uruguay's first socialist leader, is widely popular for steering the country out of economic woes with pro-business policies.
Mujica's choice of running mate, Daniel Astori, Vazquez's former economics chief, was seen as a signal to voters that Mujica would not alter fiscal policies. Business leaders feared he would stifle private enterprise growth and he wanted to reassure everyone that he would maintain Vasquez's approach.
Who is Mujica?
Mujica spent 14 years in jail for guerrilla activities, in waging an urban war against an oppressive yet elected government. He was behind bars during most of the military dictatorship of 1973 to 1985.
The former agriculture minister is popular with the working class for his socialist roots, and simple dress. He seldom wears a tie and campaigned in the first round wearing cardigans and sweaters.
But he shifted from left to center in the Broad Front in the past year to be selected as the coalition's presidential candidate, and to stand a chance of winning Sunday's vote.
"It's the model of Lula," says Mr. Garcé. "To win the elections [in Brazil] he put on an Armani suit and said he wanted a government of the left but moderate to permit a political economy respectful of capitalism."
Pressure from the far left
Mujica will be under pressure from hard-left communist elements in Broad Front to hike wages and set-up a social partnership between the government, workers, and business leaders, says, Garcé. "Although he will receive pressure, he won't change anything important in the economy," he says.
On the streets of Montevideo, locals were split over whether Uruguay's new president would take one of Latin America's most stable democracies into the sphere of the Venezuelan leader's influence.
"The ideals and the politics are of Chávez, and the links between him and Mujica are real, and notorious," said Alvaro Abdala, a lawyer.
But student Nicolas Camblong doesn't believe Mujica's critics who said the senator would turn Uruguay into a radical socialist state and bow to Chávez. "He won't do it," says Mr. Chamblong. "He's only got five years, it's a short time. He'll continue what Vasquez started."