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By Kevin Gray
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Former left-wing guerrilla fighter Jose Mujica led Uruguay's presidential election on Sunday but was headed for a run-off against a conservative rival to steer one of Latin America's most stable economies.
With results in from 21 percent of voting stations, Mujica, a 74-year-old senator who was jailed during Uruguay's 1973-85 military dictatorship, had 40.6 percent support compared to 34.7 percent for former centre-right president Luis Lacalle.
Mujica's lead was expected to widen as returns came in from the capital Montevideo, a stronghold of his ruling socialist coalition, but he was unlikely to capture more than half the vote and so will face Lacalle in a second round on November 29.
"Uruguayans are asking us for one more push. We're on our way to victory. We're going to have to fight," Mujica told thousands of flag-waving supporters on Sunday night.
Final results from the first round were expected on Monday. One recent poll showed Mujica would win a run-off although Lacalle was expected to pick up votes from supporters of the third-placed candidate.
Mujica says he has left behind his radical past and will continue the market-friendly policies that have attracted dairy and forestry investment from New Zealand and Finland and helped fund social programs such as computers for schools.
Uruguay's economy has expanded robustly for five years under its first ever leftist government, and outgoing President Tabare Vazquez is highly popular.
Mujica, from the same Broad Front coalition, should have been a runaway favourite but his militant past and sharp tongue made some Uruguayans worry the man they call "Pepe" harbours populist leanings.
However, his folksy style and use of slang are popular among others in this laid-back, beef exporting country of 3.3 million people, wedged between South America's powerhouse economies Argentina and Brazil.
"He's one of us, an ordinary person with ordinary defects. That's what makes him special," said Baltazar Ordeix, a 46-year-old graphic designer and Mujica backer.
Mujica was among the leading figures of the Tupamaros urban guerrilla movement during the 1960s and early '70s, which carried out political kidnappings and bank robberies before a military dictatorship took hold.
In the second round, he will face Lacalle, a 68-year-old lawyer who has engineered a political comeback after his 1990-1995 presidential term ended with corruption accusations involving several of his top aides.
Third-place finisher Pedro Bordaberry garnered around 18 percent of the vote, exit polls showed, and he said he was throwing his support behind Lacalle.
Mujica was held for years in solitary confinement in a deep well for his activities with the Tupamaros, survived torture and long periods with nothing to do, not even a book to read.
He spent 14 years in prison, and was freed along with other political prisoners in 1985 when the dictatorship ended. He told Reuters in an interview his prison experience shaped his personality and paved the way to him becoming more moderate politically.
"I had to invent things in my head so that I wouldn't go crazy," he said. "All that ended up changing my character and helping me to see things in a different way. That's why I'm so much more serene, much calmer and since I'm nearing death I'm not in a hurry and I'm not scared. I don't have enemies."
While some countries in Latin America have turned sharply left in recent years, Uruguay's leftist leadership has aligned itself with business-friendly moderates such as Brazil and Chile.
Hoping to reach out to the business community, Mujica turned to Vazquez's former economy minister as his vice-presidential running mate.
Danilo Astori won investor praise for his guidance of the largely agricultural-based economy, and Mujica has said he wants Astori to play a key role in shaping economic policy.
Under Vazquez, Uruguay has attracted millions of dollars in foreign investment in soy farming and cattle ranching on the country's fertile farmland.
In a plebiscite that was held along with the presidential vote, a majority voted to uphold a law shielding military and police officers from prosecution on charges of human rights abuses during the dictatorship, exit polls showed.
(Additional reporting by Julio Villaverde, Patricia Avila and Conrado Hornos; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Kieran Murray)