[News] Uruguay Elects Former Guerrilla as Next President

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Nov 30 12:02:30 EST 2009

Uruguay Elects Former Guerrilla as Next President

Written by Darío Montero
Monday, 30 November 2009

(IPS) - Left-wing candidate José Mujica was 
elected president of Uruguay with nearly 52 
percent of the vote Sunday, seven to eight 
percentage points ahead of his rival, the 
right-wing Luis Alberto Lacalle, according to projections by pollsters.

Mujica, a former senator and agriculture 
minister, will take over from socialist President 
Tabaré Vázquez on Mar. 1, to head the second 
administration of the leftist Broad Front coalition.

The unseasonal heavy rains of the last few weeks, 
which have forced more than 6,000 people out of 
their homes due to flooding in different 
provinces, hardly let up on Sunday, but voters 
flocked to the polls anyway in this South 
American country, where voting is compulsory.

The mood during Sunday's runoff was much less 
jubilant than in the first round on Oct. 25, when 
the Broad Front garnered just over 48 percent of 
the vote, winning a majority in parliament for 
the second time in history, but falling short of 
an all-out victory for Mujica. By contrast, 
Lacalle's National Party won 29 percent, and the 
Colorado Party took nearly 17 percent.

The National and Colorado Parties, which were 
founded in 1836, dominated the political life of 
the country until 2005, when the Broad Front - 
created in 1971 - won the national elections for the first time ever.

Observers consulted by IPS said Sunday's calm was 
due to the sensation among voters on the left 
that the runoff was merely a formality, given the 
large proportion of votes won in October and the 
projections of the polling companies. However, 
Montevideo, the capital, exploded in celebrations 
when Mujica's triumph was announced.

Nor will there be any surprises on Mar. 1, when 
Vázquez hands over the presidential sash to his 
successor. Despite their very different 
personalities, no major modifications are 
expected in terms of the government's economic 
policy, marked by a strong emphasis on social 
justice, or its foreign policy, according to 
political scientist César Aguiar and economist Marcel Vaillant.

Despite the contrast between the blunt-talking 
Mujica, known for his colourful, colloquial 
expressions, who did not trade in his comfortable 
casual garb for a sports jacket until the 
campaign was well under way, and the soft-spoken 
circumspect Vázquez, an oncologist, there will be 
no shift in course, as the president-elect 
himself has repeated over and over during the campaign.

"If at any point my temperament as a fighter made 
me go too far in my remarks, I apologise, and 
tomorrow we will all walk together," Mujica said 
Sunday night from the platform set up in front of 
the NH Columbia hotel across from Montevideo's 
oceanfront drive, addressing thousands and 
thousands of supporters whipped by the heavy 
rains and the strong winds coming off the Rio de la Plata estuary.

His comments were directed towards the 
opposition, with which the Broad Front has 
proposed negotiating policies of state on certain 
issues above and beyond party politics, over the 
next five-year presidential term. "Here there are 
neither winners nor losers; all that has happened 
is that a new government has been elected," said Mujica.

The calm was reinforced by the words of Lacalle, 
who greeted his rival and called on his followers 
to be "respectful" of the Broad Front's victory.

The president-elect based his campaign on the 
achievements of the current administration, which 
included a reduction of the poverty rate to 20 
percent from a record high of 32 percent in 2004, 
and a decline in extreme poverty from four to 1.5 percent of the population.

In addition, as Mujica and his running-mate 
Danilo Astori - Vázquez's former economy minister 
- pointed out during the campaign, economic 
growth ranged between 12 and seven percent a year 
until last year, before the global economic 
crisis hit, and unemployment fell from 21 percent 
in 2002 - during the financial collapse in 
neighbouring Argentina and Uruguay - to just eight percent today.

Another major accomplishment was the Plan Ceibal, 
which made Uruguay the first country in the world 
to provide a laptop, with internet connection, to 
every primary schoolchild in the public education 
system - a programme that will now be expanded to secondary school.

In addition, the government carried out a major 
tax reform aimed at redistributing income by 
increasing the burden on the middle and upper income sectors.

"To judge by the campaign, the changes with 
respect to the current government will be 
minimal," university professor César Aguiar, a 
sociologist who heads the Equipos MORI polling firm, told IPS.

While Aguiar said that although the 
president-elect's personality could usher in 
certain modifications, he added that there will 
be no radical changes, and that the next five years "will be calm."

That view, which coincides with those of other 
experts who spoke to IPS, contrasts sharply with 
Mujica's past as a young urban guerrilla fighter 
in the 1960s and 1970s - an aspect that figures 
prominently in news coverage from outside of the country.

"It is important to highlight that although 
Mujica in the past was one of the leaders of the 
Tupamaro National Liberation Movement (MLN-T), 
that was four decades ago, after which he spent 
13 years in prison (during the 1973-1985 military 
dictatorship) and now has been involved in normal 
civic life for a full 25 years, during most of 
which he was a parliamentarian," Aguiar underlined.

Since he was released from prison when democracy 
was restored in Uruguay, Mujica has dedicated 
himself to building a strong political faction 
within the Broad Front and to cultivating flowers 
on his small farm on the outskirts of the 
capital, where he will continue to live as 
president, and plans to build a farming school with his presidential salary.

Furthermore, "personality-based politics in 
Uruguay are neutralised by an institutionalised 
system of political parties with strong 
traditions that are very hard to break.

"Things are different in Uruguay than in other 
countries of Latin America, where politics are 
more unstable because large proportions of the 
population are young people or rural migrants to 
the cities, or the indigenous population is 
increasingly being incorporated into civic life - 
in other words, major social changes are taking place," he said.

"The only significant change we have here is that 
every year we get a year older," he joked, 
referring to the ageing of the population.

For Aguiar, "not even the left's arrival to the 
government for the first time, in 2005, was a 
radical change. It was not a rupture, but merely 
a long-announced change that took place in a very smooth, calm manner."

Mujica has friendly ties with left-leaning 
Argentine President Cristina Fernández and her 
husband, former president Néstor Kirchner 
(2003-2007), and with the leftist Hugo Chávez of 
Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. But he has 
also clearly marked his differences with them, 
and has repeatedly stated that his model is 
Brazil's moderate leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

"With regard to the country's economic policy and 
foreign relations, there will be a sense of 
continuity with the Vázquez administration, above 
and beyond a new aesthetic and some gestures that 
could make (the new president) look more like 
Chávez or Morales," said Vaillant, a professor of 
international trade at the University of the Republic.

But he noted that Mujica has stated many times 
that he is aligned with Lula's approach, "which 
points to continuity," he said, adding that the 
president-elect will also take "the middle way" in regional relations.

"It would be illogical for the new government to 
shift direction when, for example, the current 
policies have brought high economic growth and 
high levels of foreign direct investment, which 
has boosted growth and has helped the country 
weather the global crisis without damages."

Vaillant, an expert in regional integration, said 
"foreign investment has set truly historic new records during this government."

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