Uruguay votes for new president, leftist Vazquez favourite to win

Uruguay votes for new president, leftist Vazquez favourite to win
Photo composition showing presidential candidate for the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party and former president (2005-2010) Tabare Vazquez (L) and presidential candidate for the National Party Luis Lacalle Pou, both in Montevideo on October 26, 2014. Vazquez,

MONTEVIDEO - Uruguayans vote on Sunday for a new president with former leader Tabare Vazquez looking set to win comfortably, securing the ruling leftist coalition a third consecutive term and allowing it to roll out its pioneering marijuana law.

Opinion polls give Vazquez, 74, who was president in 2005-2010, a 14 percentage point lead over Luis Lacalle Pou of the centre-right National Party.

A Vazquez win would see him replace his close ally, Jose Mujica, one of Latin America's most popular leaders, and ensure a continuation of the Broad Front's mix of pro-business policies and welfare programs that spurred a decade of strong growth. "The Front has done things well, it has given us more rights and the country is now going places," said Marcelo Perez, a 23-year-old craftsman who sells wood carvings in the capital, Montevideo. "There are more jobs now and that means people are buying." Vazquez's first election win 10 years ago ended two decades of conservative rule that followed a military dictatorship during which Mujica, a former guerrilla, was imprisoned.

Vazquez closed his first term with approval ratings hitting 70 per cent but, like Mujica now, was barred by the constitution from seeking a second consecutive term.

If he makes a successful return, Vazquez, a respected oncologist, has promised to see through the legalization of the commercial production and sale of marijuana, although he might make some changes to how it is implemented.

The marijuana law was passed late last year and aims to wrest the drug trade from illegal gangs.

Lacalle Pou, 41, has threatened to repeal much of the reform, which two in three Uruguayans oppose.

Vazquez will need to address rising crime and education, both major concerns of voters. He promises to increase spending on schools to 6 per cent of gross domestic product from 4.5 per cent now.

In the first round of the election last month, Vazquez won 47.8 per cent of the vote while Lacalle Pou won 30.8 per cent.

Lacalle Pou had been expected to do better after promising to rein in a fiscal deficit and inflation, and tapping into the frustrations of more conservative voters upset by Mujica's laws legalizing gay marriage, abortion and pot.

But Vazquez was boosted by the Broad Front's strong record in power and Lacalle Pou was seen as lacking his rival's gravitas and experience.

Polling stations open at 8 a.m. (1000 GMT) and close at 7.30 p.m. Exit polls will be released at 8.30 p.m. and partial results are expected by 10 p.m.

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