MONTEVIDEO: Voters in Uruguay faced a stark choice in Sunday's presidential election: an ex-rebel who yearns to create enduring socialism or a former center-right president who privatized government services and wants to pull away from alliances with Latin American leftists.
Jose "Pepe" Mujica, 74, the candidate of the governing Broad Front leftist coalition, was the clear front-runner, but polls suggested he would narrowly miss getting the majority needed to avoid a runoff against Luis Alberto Lacalle, 69, the National Party candidate who was president in 1990-95.
Uruguayans also were voting in two plebiscites. One would remove amnesty for human rights violations during Uruguay's 1973-85 dictatorship, opening up dozens of former military officials to prosecution. Another would allow Uruguayan citizens living overseas to vote by mail. Mujica favored both measures; Lacalle opposed them.
Outgoing President Tabare Vazquez is ending his single five-year term with the country in substantially good shape, the economy swinging up and consensus reached on many of the major issues that rile other democracies. But that shared understanding might not survive after Sunday.
In many ways, Uruguayans were voting for their visions of the past as well as the future.
The military amnesty law was passed in 1986 as a balancing move a year after Mujica and other Tupamaru guerrillas were granted amnesty for their crimes. Lacalle described it as key to a peaceful transition to democracy after the 12-year dictatorship.
Mujica was a leader of the Tupamaru guerrillas, who were inspired by the Cuban revolution to organize kidnappings, bombings, robberies and other attacks on the conservative but democratically elected governments of the 1960s. Convicted of killing a policeman in 1971, he endured torture and solitary confinement during nearly 15 years in prison.
Lacalle, for his part, calls himself "hard to kill" after surviving a guerrilla bombing of his house and an attempt to poison him and other National Party leaders with doctored bottles of wine in the 1970s.
Freed as the dictatorship ended a quarter-century ago, Mujica helped transform the guerrillas into a legitimate political movement. He eventually became the top vote-getter in Congress and served as Vazquez's agriculture minister, developing a reputation for populist policies and impolitic commentary.
Invoking an old man's right to say what he thinks, he seems to relish pointing out the pompous and hypocritical in blunt, working man's slang. That image — and his populist convictions — has some Uruguayans worrying what might happen if the perennial outsider finally gets a chance to run the country.
Lacalle helped found Mercosur, which is headquartered in Montevideo, but says that the trade bloc has become too political and that he would pull Uruguay out if he becomes president. He also criticized Unasur, the 12-nation South American group, saying it is just "another place for conflicts."
Running third was Pedro Bordaberry, 49, of the right-wing Colorado party, son of the president who ushered in Uruguay's 12-year dictatorship in 1973.
Vazquez's victory five years ago ended decades of two-party rule in Uruguay and installed a large bureaucratic class to manage the country of 3.4 million people. Many ruling party stalwarts fear that if Mujica fails to win outright, the more centrist elements of the Broad Front could swing to LaCalle, who also is expected to pick up most Colorado party votes in a runoff.
The eventual winner will take office March 1.