November 30, 2009 / 12:48 AM / 10 years ago

Ex-guerrilla fighter Mujica to rule Uruguay

MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Jose Mujica, a former guerrilla fighter who vows to continue investor-friendly policies, won Uruguay’s presidential run-off, solidifying the ruling leftist coalition’s hold on power.

Uruguay's president-elect Jose Mujica celebrates winning the presidential run-off election in Montevideo November 29, 2009. REUTERS/Andres Stapff

With ballots counted at 96 percent of polling stations, Mujica had 53 percent of the vote compared to nearly 43 percent for his conservative rival, former President Luis Lacalle, official results showed.

Lacalle conceded the race more than an hour after polls closed, as pollster projections showed Mujica headed to victory.

Mujica’s victory was a testament to the popularity of outgoing President Tabare Vazquez and the political dominance of the Broad Front coalition that has overseen strong economic growth since it came to power four years ago.

“The best publicity we had was Tabare Vazquez,” Mujica said in a television interview. “We’re going to continue his program.”

Mujica, who was jailed for 14 years for his guerrilla activities, overcame some critics’ warnings he would align Uruguay with Latin America’s hard-line left, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

But he repeatedly praised the government of centre-left Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and sought to portray himself as having turned the page on his militant past.

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.

Mujica was a leader of the Tupamaros guerrilla movement that carried out robberies, political kidnappings and bombings.

He inherits an agricultural-based economy that has grown at an average annual rate of 7 percent under Vazquez, who ends his presidency with approval ratings above 60 percent. Growth has been buoyed by beef exports and higher commodities prices.

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.

Rarely seen in a suit and tie, Mujica is popular with the poor and working class who like his blunt-talking style, but he worries critics with his occasionally undiplomatic outbursts, including his recent criticism of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s government.

Mujica was a key figure in transforming the Tupamaros into a political party. The Broad Front, made up of socialists and other leftists, put an end to a century of dominance by the country’s two traditional parties with Vazquez’s victory.

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 takes office for a five year-term on March 1 and will have a congressional majority.

Additional reporting by Conrado Hornos and Patricia Avila; Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Paul Simao

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