MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Leftist ruling party candidate Tabare Vazquez is in a strong position to win Uruguay’s presidential election race after taking a big lead in the first round of voting, official results showed on Monday.
Vazquez, who was president in 2005-10 and is the ruling Broad Front’s candidate again this time around, won 47.2 percent of votes in Sunday’s election with returns counted from more than 99 percent of polling stations.
Although he fell short of the 50 percent majority needed for an outright win, he had a bigger than expected lead over his closest rival, Luis Lacalle Pou of the center-right National Party. The two men will now meet in a runoff on Nov. 30.
Lacalle Pou, 41, had just 30.5 percent support in the first round and while he swiftly secured the endorsement of third-placed Colorado Party contender Pedro Bordaberry, he faces an uphill battle to win the runoff.
Bordaberry won just 12.7 percent of the vote and Vazquez is likely to pick up votes from some smaller parties.
In another boost to Vazquez, the results pointed to a narrow and unexpected parliamentary majority for the Broad Front.
Lacalle Pou’s supporters, many of whom are disenchanted with rising crime, an ailing healthcare system and tax hikes to finance welfare programs, were disappointed by the margin of the first-round defeat.
“I thought Lacalle Pou would end up with a better chance of winning the runoff,” lamented 62-year old pensioner Mirtha Gomez, who like others said Lacalle Pou’s hopes of a second-round victory looked slim.
Vazquez brought the Broad Front to power in 2005 and won praise for his blend of pro-market economic policies and welfare programs. During his five year period, he oversaw steady economic growth and falling poverty levels.
The constitution barred him from a second consecutive term in 2010 but his ally Jose Mujica was elected and continued the model.
“Vazquez inspires confidence because he kicked off the changes Uruguay is benefiting from today,” said Christian Fraigola, a 37 year-old shopkeeper.
Mujica, 79, a former guerrilla who remains widely liked for his blunt talk and humble lifestyle, was elected to the Senate on Sunday.
As president, he has tested the patience of Uruguay’s more conservative voters with liberal reforms, including the legalization of abortion, gay marriage and the production, sale and consumption of marijuana.
To his supporters, Lacalle Pou represented a challenge to Uruguay’s political old-guard. Last week said he would seek to overturn the marijuana law if he won.
“I saw Lacalle Pou as a breath of fresh air,” said Oscar Larrique, a 23-year old student. “He had good ideas about organizing the economy and ending unnecessary spending.”
The center-left Independent Party, whose candidate Pablo Mieres polled a distant fourth with 3 percent, is now in the spotlight.
Mieres said his party was undecided on which of the two candidates to back in the second round and that he would announce a decision on the weekend.
“We agree on some issues and disagree on others with both candidates,” Mieres told Reuters. “But it’s not a matter of simply adding up points in favor and against to arrive at a decision.”
Many Independent Party voters would likely back Vazquez in the runoff and analysts said there would be little incentive for the party’s leadership to back Lacalle Pou.
“They are more likely to want to back a winner that could yield them ministerial positions and power,” said Juan Carlos Doyenart of Montevideo consultancy Interconsult. “Vazquez has already virtually won the runoff.”
Additional reporting by Esteban Farat in Montevideo and Sarah Marsh in Buenos Aires; Writing by Richard Lough and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Kieran Murray