Page last updated at 13:24 GMT, Saturday, 24 October 2009 14:24 UK

Uruguay election offers sharp contrast

By Candace Piette
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Jose Mujica at his closing camaign rally
Jose Mujica has a reputation for speaking his mind

The main contenders in Uruguay's presidential election on Sunday present a sharp contrast: a former guerrilla leader and a conservative ex-president attempting a comeback.

Jose "Pepe" Mujica, now a senator, was a member of the rebel Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (MLN) in the 1960s and 1970s.

He was eventually captured and held in military prisons for 14 years.

A vegetarian who advocates a simple life, he has conducted his campaign across Uruguay using public transport, with a simple rucksack on his back.

His humble style has given him a widespread popular appeal amongst the poor and the liberal classes, says Adolfo Garce of the Institute of Political Science of the University of the Republic in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo.

"He is not interested in clothes or money and says that is what is important in life is to work as little as possible so as to enjoy it more," Mr Garce said.

Frank comments

Sen Mujica's anti-consumerism message has appealed to younger Uruguayans, in particular.

"He speaks to us on a very human level of philosophy, love and dreams. I think he could be a president who really breaks the mould, and who does politics in a very different way," says Gonzalo Masa, a 34-year-old clothing designer in Montevideo.

But Mr Mujica, 74, a member of the governing socialist coalition Frente Amplio, is also known for a blunt turn of phrase that has got him in to trouble during the campaign.

Imprudent statements to the Argentine media about Argentine politicians as well as comments taken from a book of frank interviews have forced him to spend a lot of time apologising.

Angela Lopez, a cinema and video artist, says she finds Senator Mujica's left-wing message appealing, with its emphasis on job creation, education and fighting poverty.

But she is concerned that with his outspoken ways he could be a liability as president.

"Uruguay is very European, we are not used to someone who is so humble, who grows leeks in his backyard, being our president," she says.

"Many in the middle class are finding it hard to accept this and we are concerned he might say the wrong thing all the time."

But, she says, he would represent a real change in Uruguay.

"It would break the paralysis created by our past that someone who was tortured during military rule could be our president, and for us, that would be a historic change in our values."

Current success

Sen Mujica's main rival, Luis Alberto Lacalle, 68, is more typical Latin American presidential material. A conservative at heart, he has experience as a former president.

Luis Lacalle at a rally on 18 October
Luis Lacalle was president from 1990 to 1995

But his image has been damaged by corruption allegations against officials around him during his administration in the early 1990s.

In many ways, says political analyst Adolfo Garce, Mr Lacalle's main problem is not Sen Mujica but the success of the current Uruguayan president, Tabare Vazquez.

"President Vazquez has had a very successful government and he has many triumphs behind him including large public works, a new airport, and the roll-out of a laptop for every school child in Uruguay," says Mr Garce.

"To confront a government that has done so many public works is impossible."

President Vazquez very visibly endorsed Sen Mujica with press photos of handshakes and embraces as the election campaign neared its climax.

Opinion polls suggest Sen Mujica is on course to finish first, ahead of Mr Lacalle, and Pedro Bordaberry, whose father led a military coup in 1973.

Mr Bordaberry trails a distant third and his supporters would be likely to support Mr Lacalle, if the election went to a second round.

However, polls indicate Sen Mujica would win a run-off on 29 November.

The elections on Sunday will also see a renewal of both houses of congress and there will also be two referendums: one on whether to annul a law which allowed the military to be pardoned for human rights abuses during military rule and the other, to allow postal ballots for voters abroad.

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