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Uruguay presidential polls outcome uncertain

  |   Oct. 23, 2009 at 12:23 PM
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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- The presidential election in Uruguay Sunday is moving toward an uncertain outcome, raising concerns the political and economic stability enjoyed under President Tabare Vazquez may be coming to an end.

None of the candidates has emerged as a clear winner, giving rise to speculation that there may be a last-minute upset in the polls. The latest public opinion polls show that almost 9 percent of the electorate remains undecided.

The irony, analysts say, is that incumbent Vazquez remains hugely popular but is not running, because he is barred under the constitution from seeking a second term. Vazquez is credited with engineering Uruguay's political stability and economic growth and is popular with business leaders and the majority of the population.

Leading the race is Jose Mujica, 74, a left-wing former guerrilla leader who served jail terms under the 1973-1985 military dictatorship and is known more for his outspoken pronouncements than for clear-cut economic policies.

Mujica is unlikely to emerge as a clear winner and faces a challenge from center-right former President Luis Lacalle.

As the third leading candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, is also backed by Uruguay's right and is least likely to make any impression, the responsibility for ensuring continuation of the balanced policies of Vazquez rests on the shoulders of Mujica.

However, Mujica is not as much of a consensus candidate as the ruling Broad Coalition of President Vazquez would hope for.

While Vazquez enjoys support across the political spectrum for his moderate leadership and delicate handling of a patchwork of former guerrillas, socialists and other left-wing elements, Mujica is regarded with suspicion by the industry and the middle classes that have benefited from the unusual phenomenon of a market economy dominated by left-wingers.

Vazquez played a crucial role in shielding Uruguay from the effects of Argentina's economic meltdown in 2002 and keeping the country afloat after last year's global credit crunch. But many doubt if Mujica can perform a similar role when needed.

Through a combination of factors, Uruguay has come largely unscathed through the two crises and currently boasts a growth rate of 5.7 percent, which rivals and exceeds the economic performance of regional leader Brazil.

Unlike neighboring Argentina, agricultural and livestock production in Uruguay have thrived on the government's free market economic policies. Economists and analysts see the presidential election as an untimely and unwelcome intrusion in what, in their view, may have been a good business-as-usual.

Mujica, sensing the apprehension and skepticism, said in a campaign speech, "We're not on the cusp of an apocalypse or at the door of the promised land. There is an election that is not the equivalent of a war and the country is going to keep moving forward."

To reassure voters Mujica has picked popular former economic wizard Danilo Astori, popular with business leaders and Wall Street, as his running mate.

But analysts point out that Mujica's best efforts may not produce the desired result of ensuring continuity in Uruguay if he fails to achieve the required clear majority. The road ahead, they warn, may be a difficult one for Uruguay.

Argentina has declared Sunday and Monday as special holidays to enable the country's large Uruguayan community to return home for the election.

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