Montevideo: Tabare Vazquez, Uruguay`s first leftist president, is favored to reclaim the post in a run-off election Sunday, playing political leapfrog with his rabble-rousing, marijuana-legalizing successor, Jose Mujica.
Vazquez, a 74-year-old cancer doctor who kept up his practice even while he was in office, faces youthful center-right challenger Luis Lacalle Pou, 41, a former president`s son who turned heads with his laid-back style but appears to have lost steam heading into the final round.
Lacalle Pou, a lawyer, lawmaker and passionate surfer, has run a muted campaign since the October 26 first-round vote, when he finished a distant second with 30.9 percent to 47.8 percent for Vazquez.
The day was seen as a strong showing for Vazquez`s Broad Front (FA) party, which defied speculation that it might lose its majority and extended its decade-long hold on Uruguay`s General Assembly for another five years.
Even the endorsement of third-place candidate Pedro Bordaberry, a fellow center-right challenger who took 12.9 percent of the first-round vote, does not appear to be enough to salvage Lacalle Pou`s presidential dreams.
The most recent opinion polls give Vazquez between 52 and 55 percent of the vote, against 37 to 41 percent for Lacalle Pou.
The athletic young lawyer, who campaigned on a platform of "positivity," has refused to give up hope.
"It`s difficult but not impossible," he said before the vote.
"Our love of what we believe in is stronger than mathematics."
Political analysts disagreed.
"October`s results left (the opposition) very little chance, almost nonexistent," said Rafael Pineiro, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Uruguay.
Lacalle Pou`s National Party "lost all motivation to fight" after its disappointing first-round showing, he said.Famous for living in a run-down house and donating most of his salary to charity, Mujica remains popular but cannot stand for reelection under term limits barring presidents from serving more than five consecutive years.
Widely known by his nickname, "Pepe," he is looking to hand power back to Vazquez, whose victory in 2004 represented a historic break with 174 years of dominance by the South American country`s two traditional parties, the "Colorados" (Reds) and "Blancos" (Whites, now officially called the National Party).
The FA, a leftwing coalition founded in 1971, was banned under Uruguay`s 1973-1985 dictatorship and spent another two decades in opposition before finally coming to power.
Vazquez ran as the candidate of change when he won in 2004, cruising to victory in a single round as voters punished the two traditional parties for the region`s 2002 economic crisis.
He left office with a 60-percent approval rating after getting the economy back on track, passing tough anti-smoking legislation and launching a program to give every public school student a laptop.
The FA has now presided over 10 years of economic growth, which came in at 4.4 percent last year.Vazquez, who has at times clashed with Mujica within the FA, cuts a much more sober figure than his successor, who still drives around in his beat-up Volkswagen Beetle and is known as "the world`s poorest president."
Mujica, who won a Senate seat in last month`s vote, legalized abortion, gay marriage and marijuana sales during his administration.
Vazquez has said his policy priorities will be education, infrastructure and security.
Mujica`s landmark initiative, legalizing marijuana, may face an uncertain future in Vazquez`s hands.
Under the law, the first of its kind in the world, marijuana users were supposed to be able to choose a supply source -- pharmacies, cannabis clubs or home-grown plants -- and buy or grow the drug in a regulated, fully legal market.
But though the legislation officially came on the books in April, implementation is still in the embryonic stages.
Vazquez, who made anti-smoking legislation one of the top priorities of his own presidency, has been lukewarm toward the marijuana law.
He has spoken out forcefully against smoking pot, called the idea of pharmacy sales "incredible" and said that if elected he would make "any corrections necessary" to the law.