MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Former leader Tabare Vazquez is on track to win Uruguay's presidential election runoff on Sunday, paving the way for the roll-out of a groundbreaking law that legalizes the production and sale of marijuana.
Opinion polls show the leftist Vazquez, who was president in 2005-2010, comfortably beating Luis Lacalle Pou of the center-right National Party.
A Vazquez victory would give the ruling Broad Front coalition its third consecutive term in office. His campaign has been buoyed by national affection for outgoing President Jose Mujica and a decade of healthy economic growth.
Vazquez, 74, created jobs and cut poverty levels with pro-market economic policies and strong social programs in his first term, a record that resonated with the electorate in this campaign.
"Many people were able to improve their lives thanks to the Broad Front," said 39-year-old nurse Perla Curbelo.
Lacalle Pou, 41, has said he would repeal much of the marijuana law. Polls had shown him running a strong campaign but he drew less support than expected in the first round of voting last month and he now trails well behind Vazquez.
An Equipos poll on Wednesday showed Vazquez with 54.5 percent support and Lacalle Pou 40 percent. Another poll, by Cifra, showed 54.8 percent and 40.4 percent, respectively.
Vazquez led the Broad Front to power 10 years ago and the cattle-farming South American nation's economy has since grown an average 5.7 percent annually.
Unable to run for a second consecutive term, Vazquez stepped down in 2010 with approval ratings hitting 70 percent.
His successor was Mujica, a straight-talking former guerrilla known affectionately as "Pepe" and popular both for his modest lifestyle and management of the $55 billion economy.
Mujica did, however, test the patience of more conservative voters in the country of 3.4 million people by legalizing gay marriage, abortion and the marijuana trade.
Vazquez, who vetoed the proposed legalization of abortion during his first term, is seen as less radical.
"He brings seriousness to management that perhaps Mujica lacks at times. (Mujica) takes a decision now and then sees later what happens," said an official from Vazquez's first government who declined to be named.
Lacalle Pou accuses Vazquez of staying silent on further tax hikes that he says are inevitable if the ruling coalition honors its promise to increase education spending and provide support for full time carers of sick relatives.
The Broad Front's tax hikes have helped fund welfare programs but also squeezed the middle class. Even so, many of Lacalle Pou's supporters have lost hope for a victory on Sunday.
"I don't think Lacalle can win anymore, which is a shame because he could resolve the country's problems," said Carla Da Silva, a 68-year old pensioner. "He would cut taxes on us pensioners if he won."
Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Richard Lough and Kieran Murray