Leftist wins Uruguay’s presidency as ballot box gives him power he couldn’t gain with violence

By Michael Warren, AP
Monday, November 30, 2009

Ballot box gives ex-guerrilla Uruguay’s presidency

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — A former guerrilla fighter has achieved through the ballot box what he could never earn by bombing, kidnapping and attacking his political enemies — the power to legitimately lead an entire nation.

Jose Mujica, now president-elect of Uruguay, seemed like he could hardly believe the transformation himself in his rousing victory speech Sunday night, delivered as rain drenched thousands of supporters along the Ramblas, Montevideo’s coastal avenue.

“The people gave us this victory!” Mujica shouted, moving back and forth as aides struggled to cover the 74-year-old with umbrellas. “There are those who believe that power is up above, and they don’t notice that it’s actually in the hearts of the great masses. Thank you! It cost me an entire life, perhaps, to learn this. Thank you, and until forever!”

Mujica won more than 50 percent of the votes cast Sunday, compared to about 45 percent for former President Luis A. Lacalle, according to exit polls by Cifra, Factum and Equipos Mori, the South American nation’s leading pollsters. The Electoral Court was slowly releasing official results, but the conservative Lacalle conceded the race.

Mujica thanked all his “brothers” across Latin America in his victory speech, but there is one president in particular that he has claimed as his inspiration: Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who also rose from militancy, as a union chief, to become a popular centrist at the helm of government.

Mujica repeatedly denied Lacalle’s claims that he would hijack Uruguay’s stable parliamentary democracy and install a radical socialist state modeled on Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. He said he would seek consensus wherever possible and continue the policies of President Tabare Vazquez, who enjoys a 71 percent popularity rating as he prepares to leave office March 1.

In one typical speech, Mujica vowed in July to distance the left from “the stupid ideologies that come from the 1970s — I refer to things like unconditional love of everything that is state-run, scorn for businessmen and intrinsic hate of the United States.

“I’ll shout it if they want: Down with isms! Up with a left that is capable of thinking outside the box! In other words, I am more than completely cured of simplifications, of dividing the world into good and evil, of thinking in black and white. I have repented!”

The Tupamaro guerrillas, co-founded by Mujica, caused so much chaos in the 1960s that Uruguayans initially welcomed a dictatorship that ruled from 1973 to 1985. Mujica spent all that time in prison, enduring torture and solitary confinement for killing a policeman — a crime he denies committing. He says prison cured him of any illusion that armed revolution can achieve lasting social change.

Mujica’s future wife, fellow Tupamaro Lucia Topolansky, also emerged from prison committed to transforming the rebels into a legitimate political movement that became the driving force within the Broad Front, a center-left coalition that pulled more than 20 leftist factions together five years ago to give Vazquez a presidential victory. It was the first time in 150 years that the office wasn’t won by Lacalle’s center-right National Party or the right-wing Colorado Party.

Many voters said the single five-year term required by Uruguay’s constitution wasn’t enough to consolidate the successes of Vazquez, who imposed a progressive income tax and used the 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, a scion of Uruguay’s political elite, championed privatizations during his 1990-95 term and had vowed this time to eliminate the income tax and “take a chain saw” to state bureaucracies. But he also acknowledged Vazquez’s successes in the economy.

The Broad Front held on to a narrow majority in Congress, where Topolansky earned the most votes in the Senate and will therefore be third in line to the presidency, after Vice President-elect Danilo Astori.

As for Mujica, he still has the appearance of an anti-politician, a gruff old man more comfortable driving a tractor on his farm than shuffling through marbled halls. Topolansky has said she’ll only reluctantly endure the protocols of a first lady.

As Uruguay’s first couple, they could finally taste luxury, in the official presidential residence in Montevideo as well as at Parque Anchorena, a beautiful presidential estate in the city of Colonia.

But the couple have said they prefer to stay in their “chacra,” a little flower farm in the Rincon del Cerro, a working-class community with dirt roads and small plots on the edge of the capital.

Vazquez, the outgoing president, also chose to stay in his own home and use the mansion only for official functions.

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