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Conservative tipped to win presidential runoff in Uruguay
[MONTEVIDEO] Uruguay's long-dominant leftist ruling party faced defeat in a presidential election run-off on Sunday as the small South American country prepares to swing to the right.
Opinion polls showed that Luis Lacalle Pou, the 46-year-old leader of the centre-right National Party, is likely to win as voters appear set to turn the page on 15 years of leftist rule.
Lacalle Pou, a senator, trailed the ruling Broad Front candidate Daniel Martinez in last month's first round, but a pact with center-right and right-wing parties following simultaneous legislative elections has given him a majority in Congress as well as a significant lead heading into the run-off.
"Polls suggest he has a 6-8 point lead, although the result may well tighten," said Robert Wood, Latin America manager for the Economist Intelligence Unit.
A win for the right would "reflect a trend in the region of voters rejecting the incumbent party over disappointing results."
With bright and sunny weather, more than 70 per cent of the country's 2.6 million eligible voters had cast ballots three hours before the polls were due to close at 7.30pm (2230 GMT), Electoral Court chairman Jose Arocena said.
"We want the Front to win, because we feel that with the left our rights are guaranteed," said Juan Pablo Abella, 40, as he walked to a polling station in Montevideo's upmarket Villa Biarritz district with his wife and nine-year-old daughter.
Mr Abella said both he and his wife were born under Uruguay's dictatorship and for them, voting was both a right and a duty.
"Seeing how things are in the region, not everyone has the possibility to choose. You have to value that," he said.
The run-off is effectively a referendum on 15 years of rule by the Broad Front - or Frente Amplio - which has won the last three elections.
"Voters are tired of economic stagnation, high unemployment and rising crime since the end of the commodity supercycle and will look to Mr Lacalle Pou for improvements," Mr Wood told AFP.
Inflation is running at 7.5 per cent and unemployment at 9.0 per cent.
Outgoing president Tabare Vazquez noted turmoil sweeping Latin America - the resignation of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia, and sometimes violent street protests in Chile and now Colombia - and said Uruguay will carry out a smooth transfer of power to a new president in March of next year.
"The people of Uruguay can rest assured that we are going to achieve this," Mr Vazquez told reporters.
In a highly unusual incident in the early hours of Sunday, a bus carrying military personnel to guard ballot boxes was stoned by people participating in an electronic music festival in Montevideo.
Uruguyan media and videos circulated on Twitter showed several cars had been damaged.
"When I saw that this morning, I thought it was another country. Unfortunately it was Uruguay," said Lacalle Pou, who has promised to get tough on rising crime levels.
The Broad Front, a coalition of leftist movements, can point to a record of progressive governing since it broke a decades-long conservative stranglehold on the government in 2005.
Uruguay stood out on the international stage by approving abortion and gay marriage, and the small nation pioneered the legalisation of cannabis in 2013.
But Lacalle Pou has tapped into voter concerns over the country's high tax rates and promised to look elsewhere to raise the US$900 million needed to reduce the public deficit, nearly 5.0 per cent of GDP.
"Uruguay can't bear any more taxes," he told supporters.
The latest polls show the challenger with 51 per cent, comfortably ahead of the 43 per cent for outgoing Montevideo mayor Martinez.
Uruguay has long been considered a bastion of peace and stability in an often turbulent region.
"Uruguay continues to be cited as an example of a functioning democracy in the region, whilst rejecting extremist populists outcomes," said Paul Hare of Boston University.
"It is an example for other regions, including the United States," Mr Hare told AFP.
But security has been declining, with a sharp rise in some violent crimes reported last year.
In 2018, South America's second-smallest country registered a record 414 murders, up 45 per cent on the year before.
The next president will take office in March for five years.