MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Uruguayan voters decide on Sunday whether to give the ruling coalition another term after a decade of strong growth and leftist reforms, or turn to an opposition candidate who says legalizing marijuana production was a step too far.
Opinion polls ahead of the presidential election show young center-rightist Luis Lacalle Pou forcing the governing coalition's Tabare Vazquez, a former president, into a runoff vote in late November.
Vazquez, 74, brought the leftist Broad Front to power 10 years ago and won praise for his blend of pro-market economic policies and social welfare policies.
His successor, outgoing President Jose Mujica, continued with the model and his straight-talking, unpretentious style made him one of the small nation's most popular leaders.
Mujica also legalized abortion and gay marriage, and last year made Uruguay the world's first country to legalize the production, distribution and sale of marijuana.
Uruguay's constitution bars a president from holding two consecutive terms in office so Vazquez returned to be the Broad Front's candidate. He says his government, if he wins, will remain focused on improving conditions for the most vulnerable in a country of 3.4 million people.
"Vazquez is going to be president again because Uruguayans don't want to return to the past," said Analia Vernini, a 36-year-old dentist.
Lacalle Pou, 41, is the son of former president Luis Lacalle, although he has sought to distance himself from his father's 1990-95 rule, which was stained by botched privatizations and political scandal.
The latest opinion polls show Vazquez with the support of 43 percent of voters compared with 31 percent for Lacalle Pou.
But that would leave Vazquez short of the 50 percent he needs for a first-round victory and, in a runoff, Lacalle Pou could secure the support of right-wing Colorado Party candidate Pedro Bordaberry, who has polled between 14-18 percent support. That would make the runoff vote a tight one.
Voters also elect lawmakers on Sunday. Neither the Broad Front nor Lacalle Pou's National Party are likely to win a majority in Congress, meaning the next president will face a tougher time than Mujica in passing laws.
A keen surfer, father-of-three Lacalle Pou is viewed by supporters as a fresh face for Uruguayan politics. With more socially liberal views than previous National Party candidates, who could appeal to moderate voters on both the left and right.
He has tapped into the simmering discontent felt by many Uruguayans toward the extent of Mujica's social reforms. Almost two in three opposed the ex-guerrilla's plan for the state to oversee the legal production and commercial distribution of marijuana.
"Lacalle Pou is the young face of the National Party, but also of all Uruguayan politicians," said 54-year-old teacher Susana Montero. "You have to give him an opportunity, I think I will vote for him."
Lacalle Pou told Reuters on Wednesday he would try to repeal much of the ground-breaking marijuana law passed last December if he is elected. He also said he would reverse Mujica's offer of asylum to six Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
"Uruguay is heading towards a government of conviction rather than a government of imposition," he told supporters on the campaign trail in the western town of Paysandu.
Uruguay's $55 billion economy has expanded an average 5.7 percent annually since 2005. The government forecasts lower growth of 3 percent this year, still outperforming neighboring Argentina and Brazil.
The number of Uruguayans living in poverty has fallen sharply to 11 percent from more than a third in 2006.
Lacalle Pou says the Broad Front has benefited from a cyclical boom and called policymaking in the last ten years "a lost decade".
He plans to put the brakes on inflation, now running at 9 percent, with spending cuts and tight monetary policy. He also promises tax relief and a reduction in the fiscal deficit.
Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Richard Lough and Kieran Murray