World

Tabare Vazquez wins Uruguay election, paving way for pot initiative

Tabare Vazquez easily won Uruguay's presidential election on Sunday, returning to power a left-leaning coalition that has helped legalize gay marriage and moved to create the world's first state-run marijuana marketplace.

Broad Front coalition will continue in power

Elected President Tabare Vazquez gestures during a celebration rally in Montevideo after knowing the results of a runoff election on Sunday. (Carlos Pazos/Reuters)

Tabare Vazquez easily won Uruguay's presidential election on Sunday, returning to power a left-leaning coalition that has helped legalize gay marriage and moved to create the world's first state-run marijuana marketplace.

The runoff vote had drawn international attention because Vazquez's rival, centre-right candidate Luis Lacalle Pou, had promised to undo much of the plan to put the government in charge of regulating the production, distribution and sale of marijuana on a nationwide scale.

Lacalle Pou, 41, called Vazquez to concede and "wish him great success" after exit polls showed him losing. Late Sunday night, Uruguay's Electoral Court announced that with all the votes counted, Vazquez had 53 per cent support and Lacalle Pou 40 per cent.

Vazquez, a 74-year-old oncologist who was president from 2005-2010, immediately called on the opposition to join him in a national accord to deal with the key issues of public security, health and education.

"I want to be able to count on all Uruguayans, but not so they follow me but so they guide me, accompany me," said Vazquez as his supporters poured into the street to celebrate.

Sunday's win marked a reversal of roles for Vazquez, who shook up Uruguayan politics when he became president the first time, peacefully ending 170 years of two-party dominance. In his first presidential campaign, Vazquez promised changes that would "shake the roots of the trees." But he governed as a relatively cautious moderate, avoiding the constitutional changes and polarization that have shaken countries such as Venezuela.

Supporters of Frente Amplio party celebrate as elected President Tabare Vazquez gives his speech in Montevideo. (Andres Stapff/Reuters)

His popularity on leaving office paved the way for the election of his successor, current President Jose Mujica, a former guerrilla known for his humble lifestyle and straight talk. Both men belong to the Broad Front coalition, which has been in power for a decade and has passed laws backing same-sex marriage, marijuana and other social issues.

This time around, Mujica's popularity and a strong economy helped propel Vazquez into office, where he is now seen as the candidate of continuity, not of change.

Javier Silva, an operator at a state electrical plant, said he voted for Vazquez because he thinks the country is doing well.

"The economy is rising. The country isn't anything like it was 10 or 20 years ago, when it was in decline," said the 35-year-old.

Electoral laws forbid consecutive terms

Monica Centurion, a 51-year-old official at a state hospital, said she backed Lacalle Pou because she worried about crime.

"It was for his proposals, especially to improve public security, which is the principal issue," she said describing why she voted for him.

Lacalle Pou is the son of another ex-president, Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera, who governed from 1990 to 1995.

During his campaign, he criticized the marijuana plan, saying he would shut down the state-run pot market, while allowing domestic cultivation of the plant. Polls show that despite its international popularity, most Uruguayans oppose the marijuana laws and want them repealed. Uruguayan authorities are still in the process of rolling out the pot marketplace.

Lacalle Pou was hobbled by some voters' wariness of a return to the traditional parties that ruled through most of the country's usually peaceful history, apart from a 1973-1985 military dictatorship.

Vazquez, the tall and trim son of an oil worker, grew up in a working class neighborhood of Montevideo and went on to achieve a medical degree. He continued seeing patients one day a week during his previous presidency, but said in a recent interview that he would give up medicine to focus on the presidency if elected.

In the first round of voting in October, he fell just short of an outright victory, getting 48 per cent support against 31 per cent for Lacalle Pou. Mujica was barred by law from running for a second consecutive term.

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