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Nov 30, 2014 7:15 PM

Ex-president wins Uruguay election, pot plan safe

The Associated Press

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) Tabare Vazquez's victory in Uruguay's presidential election is a show of support for the leftist coalition that has governed the country for the past decade and allows the government to proceed with its plan to create the world's first state-run marijuana marketplace.

Vazquez, a 74-year-old oncologist who was president from 2005 to 2010, topped center-right rival Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party 53 percent to 40 percent in Sunday's vote.

The runoff vote drew international attention after Lacalle Pou promised to undo much of the pioneering plan to put the government in charge of regulating the production, distribution and sale of marijuana on a nationwide scale. Vazquez, meanwhile, said he would proceed with it, unless it produced negative results.

As results came in, Lacalle Pou called Vazquez to concede and wish him "great success," while supporters of Vazquez's Broad Front coalition poured into the streets to celebrate.

In his victory speech, Vazquez called on the opposition to join him in a national accord to deal with the issues of public security, health and education. "I want to be able to count on all Uruguayans, but not so they follow me, so they guide me, accompany me."

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.

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 same-sex marriage, abortion and marijuana.

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.

Monica Centurion, an official at a state hospital, said she voted for Lacalle Pou because of his pledge to improve public security, which "is the principal issue."

Vazquez immediately moved to calm fears that he would introduce radical change in his second term.

"Within the Constitution and the law everything. Outside the Constitution and the law nothing," he told party militants after his win was announced.

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 percent support against 31 percent for Lacalle Pou. Mujica was barred by law from running for a second consecutive term.


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