MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Leftist ruling party candidate Tabare Vazquez is a clear favorite to win Uruguay’s presidential election this month, buoyed by widespread affection for the country’s outgoing leader and strong economic growth.
Opinion polls show Vazquez, who was president in 2005-10, trouncing Luis Lacalle Pou of the center-right National Party by between 13 and 17 percentage points in the Nov. 30 runoff.
Vazquez, 74, ended his first term with approval ratings hitting 70 percent for his blend of pro-market economic policies and welfare programs that set the South American nation on a path of robust growth and falling poverty levels.
The constitution bars presidents from seeking consecutive terms so Vazquez resumed his work as an oncologist and in 2011 said he was quitting politics. Three years later, however, he is again running for the ruling Broad Front coalition.
“I remember how bad things were economically before 2005,” said shopkeeper Horacio Miranda, recalling when one in three Uruguayans lived in poverty. “I’ll vote Vazquez because with the Broad Front we’ll live better.”
Vazquez beat pollsters’ expectations in the first round of voting on Oct. 26. He won 47.8 percent support while 41-year-old Lacalle Pou, viewed by supporters as a fresh political face to take on the Broad Front, trailed with just 30.8 percent.
Political pundits said Lacalle Pou, a surfing enthusiast, lacked convincing answers to voters’ main concerns: high taxes squeezing the middle class, rising crime and deteriorating health services.
A demoralized opposition is lamenting a missed opportunity.
“It was like a bucket of cold water,” National Party Senator Gustavo Penades said of the first round results.
Vazquez goes into the runoff sure of strong support from rural voters, with whom Lacalle Pou struggled to connect. In Uruguay’s agricultural hinterlands, affection runs deep for the outgoing president Jose Mujica.
His straight-talking, unpretentious style has made him a popular figure although his groundbreaking legalization of the commercial production and sale of marijuana upset more conservative voters.
The 79-year-old ex guerrilla last week spurned a $1 million offer for his beat-up Volkswagen Beetle, which has become a symbol of his modest lifestyle.
During the decade of Broad Front rule, Uruguay’s $55 billion has grown an average 5.7 percent annually.
“The Broad Front is reaping the rewards of ten years of economic growth and social reforms,” said political analyst Alfonso Garce.
Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Kieran Murray