Polls following Sunday’s presidential election in Uruguay showed Jose Mujica (photo, from bbc.co.uk), a blunt-talking former senator and one time leftist guerrilla fighter, leading with more than 51 per cent of the vote.
Luis Lacalle, a former president of Uruguay, has conceded defeat in the presidential run-off.
The run-off was called after neither candidate won an absolute majority in the first-round of voting in October.
68-year-old lawyer Lacalle was president from 1990 to 1995 and campaigned on pledges to shrink the size of government and reduce crime.
His rival Mujica, 74, vowed to continue the policies of the popular outgoing president, Tabare Vazquez, and work to unify Latin Americans after taking office beginning March 1.
“Comrades! This is an inside-out world! You should be up here and us down there, because the people gave us this victory!” Mujica said in a brief, enthusiastic victory speech as rain poured over thousands of supporters in the capital, Montevideo.
He added that he aims to emulate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the populist Brazilian president, in implementing more moderate policies, and thanked Vazquez, each of his rivals and all his “brothers” across the continent.
Vazquez is constitutionally prohibited from running for office again. However, he has a 71 per cent approval rating, thanks in large part to economic policies that have allowed Uruguay to avoid a recession while keeping unemployment low and even reducing poverty levels from 26 per cent in 2007 to 20.5 per cent in 2008.
Hoping to send a sign of economic continuity, Mujica chose Danilo Astori, Vazquez’s former economy minister, as his running mate and said he would be responsible for economic policy.
Known popularly as “Pepe”, Mujica was a leader of the Marxist Tupamaros guerrilla movement that carried out robberies, political kidnappings and bombings against the government.
For 14 years he was held in prison, before his release in 1985, when democracy was restored to Uruguay after its 1973-1985 dictatorship.
Yet critics are troubled by his undiplomatic outbursts, including putdowns of the government in neighbouring Argentina.
In his speech, Mujica himself acknowledged his sharp tongue : “If at some point my temperament, which is combative, has let my tongue get away from me, I ask for forgiveness.”
But some of his supporters said they were drawn to his straight-talking style.
“I like the fact he speaks his mind even though I don’t always agree with him,” Maria Noel Gonzalez, a 24-year-old cook, said.
After his rival conceded, the streets of downtown Montevidea have been filled by thousands of Mujica supporters. They celebrated by honking car horns and waving flags.