Leftist holds wide lead in today's election for president of Uruguay

Win by Vazquez would be watershed for nation

October 31, 2004|By Hector Tobar | Hector Tobar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - Standing in the central plaza of the neighborhood of humble homes known as La Teja, an old leftist militant points out monuments in the life of Tabare Vazquez, the local hero favored to win today's presidential election.

"That building is La Escuela Yugoslavia, where Tabare went to grade school," said Alvaro Medino, who runs a nonprofit radio station. "Over there is the Arbolito Sports Club, where he started the clinic after his father died of cancer. ... And the night he was elected mayor, this was where we celebrated."

If Vazquez, 65, is elected and brings the left to power for the first time in Uruguay, it will mark the culmination of a rags-to-riches story that began here amid the shuttered factories and the state oil company refinery, where his father once worked.

Vazquez's campaign officially closed Wednesday night with a rally attended by about 250,000 people. Expectations are high in this capital that a leader with plebeian roots will bring change to a country of 3.5 million people hit hard by years of recession.

A number of polls released Thursday - the last day campaigning was allowed - showed Vazquez with support of more than 50 percent of the electorate. He leads his nearest challenger in the seven-candidate field by 20 percentage points. If no candidate wins a majority today, a runoff will be held Nov. 28.

Long popular in working-class Montevideo, Vazquez has won strong support nationwide thanks to widespread anger toward the government of outgoing President Jorge Batlle, who cannot run for re-election. The unemployment rate reached 20 percent during Batlle's tenure.

Vazquez traveled to the United States and Europe this year to reassure financial observers that, if elected, he would honor the terms of Uruguay's debt restructuring with the International Monetary Fund.

Still, Vazquez has proposed a series of "emergency" measures, including expanded unemployment benefits and incentives to encourage investment in the fading industrial sector.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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