Tabaré Vázquez won back his old job as president of Uruguay in a runoff election on Sunday, unofficial quick counts showed — which would allow the ruling coalition to roll out a law legalizing the production and sale of marijuana.
Center-right opposition candidate Luis Lacalle Pou quickly conceded defeat after three unofficial quick counts showed Vázquez, an oncologist, with over 53 percent support and Lacalle Pou trailing with about 41 percent of the vote. With Vázquez’s win, the left continues its decadelong hold on power in Uruguay, a country of 3.4 million people.
Hundreds of ruling Broad Front supporters celebrated along a main avenue running through the center of the rain-soaked capital, Montevideo, waving party banners.
If his victory is confirmed by electoral authorities, Vázquez, 74, will replace José Mujica, whose straight-talking, unpretentious style won him widespread affection.
"The country has changed for the better. We are past the days when people were leaving or children had to eat grass," said Demetrio Stavrinakis, 82, who, like Mujica, was a political prisoner during Uruguay's military dictatorship, which was in power from 1973 to 1985. "Today I see those dreams we once had have become reality, and I'm overwhelmed with emotion."
Vázquez was president from 2005 to 2010. He was popular for his mix of pro-business economic policies and strong welfare programs, which helped kick-start a decade of robust growth and slash poverty after a deep crisis of the early 2000s.
The son of a union leader who grew up in a working-class district in the capital, he closed his first term with approval ratings hitting 70 percent. Like Mujica now, he was constitutionally barred from holding a second consecutive term.
Vázquez will need to address education and rising crime, which were major concerns of voters. He promises to increase spending on schools to 6 percent of gross domestic product, from 4.5 percent now.
He will oversee Uruguay's legalization and state-controlled production, distribution and sale of cannabis, although he was less enthusiastic about the law than Mujica and has said he might modify it, depending on its impact. Pou threatened to repeal much of the legislation if he was elected president.
Mujica's reforms to legalize marijuana, gay marriage and abortion cemented Uruguay's reputation as one of Latin America's most left-leaning nations.