Uruguay president's party leads going into contest to replace him, but clear win not assured

The political party of outgoing President Jose Mujica, who gained international notice for social reforms such as legalization of marijuana and gay marriage, leads going into Sunday's election to replace him but victory is far from assured.

Polls suggest that neither of the parties of the top two presidential candidates — Mujica's left-leaning Broad Front and the center-right National Party — will obtain the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round Nov. 30.

The Broad Front, a coalition of center-leftists, communists and former guerrilla leaders, had 44 percent support of voters going into the election, according to a survey of 2,008 voters taken Oct. 4-19 by Uruguayan pollster Factum. Voters will cast ballots for president and lawmakers at the same time, which means the Broad Front could also lose its legislative majority.

The National Party was second at 32 percent, while support for the right-wing Colorado party was 15 percent. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

Tabare Vazquez, the Broad Front's 74-year-old presidential candidate, was president of Uruguay in 2005-2010. His top challenger, 41-year-old National Party candidate Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou, is the son of a former president. In distant third is 54-year-old Pedro Bordaberry of the Colorado Party, whose father was elected president then seized power as a dictator.

Uruguayan law barred Mujica from running for another term.

Mujica remains popular after leading Uruguay during a period that saw the economy grow and wages rise. But critics say his government failed to deal with problems in education, security and environmental protection.

"A part of society has changed its mood and seems to be demanding new ideas from the political leadership," said Daniel Chasquetti, a political scientist at Universidad de la Republica in the capital.

While recognizing Mujica's achievements in the economic realm, Lacalle Pou campaign on a promise to focus on crime and education.

"People are satisfied with the economic situation and more than half approve Mujica's management," said Adriana Raga, an analyst at Cifra consulting firm. "But we've also had two consecutive Broad Front governments, and several issues have not been solved, among them public security and education."

Rising crime has raised security concerns among the South American nation's 3.2 million citizens. As for education, Uruguay's students have tested among the worst in the world for mathematics, science and reading comprehension.

Lacalle Pou also said that he would seek to modify the law that Mujica spearheaded to create the world's first national marketplace for legal marijuana. He would still allow consumers to grow the plants at home for personal use, but would end the Uruguayan government's role in the production and sales of pot.

Uruguayans will also vote in a plebiscite on whether to reform the constitution to lower the age a person can be criminally charged as an adult from 18 to 16.