Uruguayans vote for new prez

MONTEVIDEO: Uruguayans voted Sunday in a presidential election that could bring to power an ex-guerrilla leader who was shot nine times and twice escaped from jail during the military dictatorship.

Jose Mujica, 74, candidate for the incumbent Broad Front party, needs more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round to avoid a November 29 runoff against either of his main rivals.

His rivals include conservative former president Luis Lacalle, 68, from the National Party, and Pedro Bordaberry, 49, son of the country's 1973-1975 dictator representing the Colorado Party.

Surveys put the rotund, scruffy and gray-haired Mujica -- better known in Uruguay by his nickname "Pepe" -- well ahead of his rivals and within striking distance of an outright win on Sunday.

Casting his ballot shortly after polls opened at 8 am, Mujica urged Uruguayans to do their civic duty and vote.

"Tomorrow the country will continue and we're all in the same boat," he said.

If Mujica does triumph, analysts believe he will continue left-wing economic policies introduced by outgoing President Tabare Vazquez, who is ending his five-year term on a wave of popularity but who is barred from re-election.

For Mujica, ascending to the presidency would be vindication for the wrongs he suffered under Uruguay's brutal 1973-1985 dictatorship.

As one of the founders of the Tupamaros urban rebel movement, Mujica was shot nine times, and was jailed in 1970 by the country's then democratic authorities as they set about to largely crush his group.

After twice escaping jail and being recaptured, he ended up behind bars and enduring long periods of solitary confinement as one of the prisoners of the military regime that took power in 1973, in part responding to Tupamaro radicalism.

Mujica was freed under a general amnesty issued in 1985 when democracy was restored.

If elected, he would be only the second former guerrilla to take power through the ballot box in Latin America, following Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.

His guerrilla past is a sore point with conservatives here.

"They want to transform Uruguay into a communist, socialist country. I hope Mujica does not win, because I would not vote for subversives, thieves and assassins," Raquel Rodriguez, an 82-year-old retiree, said Sunday after voting for Bordaberry, third in the polls.

But analysts depict Mujica as more of a reformer than a revolutionary.

A former agriculture minister, he has promised to continue the policies of the outgoing government, which cut unemployment in half and strengthened minority rights, including laws allowing homosexuals to form civil unions and adopt children.

On Saturday, he praised the governing style of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist whose moderate policies have eased early suspicions of the business sector.

Married to a senator who is also a former Tupamaro, Mujica became a lawmaker in 1995 after the ex-rebel group became a political party and joined the left-wing Broad Front.

Alongside the presidential balloting on Sunday will be a referendum on whether the country should drop an amnesty against military and police personnel accused of crimes during the junta era.

A recent poll shows that 47 percent of voters back the proposal, and 40 percent are against.

During the Vazquez government 10 former members of the dictatorship were sentenced to prison, including Uruguay's last military dictator, Gregorio Alvarez, who was given a 25-year prison sentence for murder and rights violations.

Polls were due to close at 7:30 pm (2130 GMT) with 2.6 million people registered to vote. First unofficial exit survey results were expected to be made public after 8:30 pm (2230 GMT).