Uruguayan voters elected Tabaré Vázquez as president on Sunday in a show of support for the leftist coalition that has governed the country over the last decade, presiding over robust economic growth and a pioneering set of socially liberal laws, including a state-controlled marijuana market.
With the passage of landmark marijuana legalization laws last year, Uruguay became the world’s first nation to legalize the production, sale and distribution of marijuana—making it a model for the global legalization movement. But most of the program has not even been implemented yet.
Dr. Vázquez, 74, an oncologist and former president from 2005-10, defeated Luis Lacalle Pou, 41, a leader of the conservative National Party who had vowed to scale back the legalization of marijuana in the small country of 3.4 million people. Mr. Lacalle Pou called Dr. Vázquez on Sunday night to congratulate him after several unofficial exit polls showed Dr. Vázquez winning by a comfortable margin. Official results are expected on Monday.
If Lacalle Pou were to win, he told Reuters last month, he would keep the part of the bill that allows users to grow their own marijuana plants at home (up to six per household) and authorize the so-called social clubs—local non-commercial organizations where up to 45 paying members can jointly cultivate up to 99 plants. But, he said he would “repeal the rest, in particular the state’s commercialization of the drug.”
What Lacalle Pou was referring to is the licensed sale and distribution of marijuana in pharmacies, where early next year individuals will be able to purchase up to 10 grams of cannabis a week at a government set price of about $1 per gram.
The election came after a stretch in which Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, 79, a former guerrilla, raised the country’s profile with legislation that legalized abortion and same-sex marriage and created the marijuana market. He is set to leave office with high approval ratings.
Dr. Vázquez is more moderate than Mr. Mujica, having vetoed an abortion law during his first term as president. He has also expressed opposition to parts of the marijuana law, a position shared by many Uruguayans as broad skepticism persists over the project. Still, he has said that he would enforce the law.
A more important issue for many Uruguayans involved the handling of economic policy by the Broad Front, a coalition of left-wing parties, with Uruguay registering average growth of nearly 6 percent a year during the last nine years. Even as growth slowed this year, cautious economic policies were seen as shielding the country from external shocks.
“Practically 70 percent of Uruguayans hold a positive or very positive view of the economic situation in the country,” said Jorge Lanzaro, a professor of political science at Uruguay’s University of the Republic. “This helps a great deal.”
In returning Dr. Vázquez to the presidency, voters endorsed a candidate with less pizzazz on the international stage than Mr. Mujica, who eschewed many of the benefits enjoyed by heads of state. But during his first term, Dr. Vázquez also governed with his own style, reserving one morning each week to continue practicing medicine. Many voters felt comfortable having him back.
“We need continuity because of the government that the Broad Front has delivered,” said Dr. Laura Tasende, 31, a surgeon who is now doing her residency. Still, she emphasized that improvements were needed in some areas. “Education has to be a priority, because it allows people to raise their living standards so they don’t need to go out and commit crimes.”
An increase in violent crime also weighed on voters, and Mr. Lacalle Pou, the conservative challenger and son of a former president, ran on a platform seeking to crack down on crime, reduce inflation and improve Uruguay’s schools. While most voters opted for his opponent, Mr. Lacalle Pou emerged as a fresh face for some.