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Uruguayans to vote on security reform during general election

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Montevideo (AFP)

Uruguayans will pick a successor to leftist President Tabare Vazquez on Sunday as well as voting on crime-busting constitutional reform to establish a military police force and create full life terms for the most serious offenses.

The South American nation has long been considered a bastion of peace and stability in an often turbulent region but that has been called into question recently by a declining security situation.

"Democracy in Uruguay is very strong and must be protected from risks," Vazquez told reporters on Thursday in his final message before Uruguay's 2.6 million voters head to the urns.

The vote comes on the same day as a general election in Argentina and against a backdrop of regional strife following massive street protests in Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, the latter over alleged electoral fraud.

In 2018, South America's second smallest country registered a record 414 murders, up 45 percent on the year before.

The alarming hike prompted the question on whether or not to accept a proposal to change the constitution, creating a military National Guard.

It would also allow for full life sentences -- reviewable after 30 years -- in a country with a current maximum term of 32 years.

Other clauses would set tougher sentences for murder and rape, and authorize police to conduct nighttime raids on the homes of suspected drug dealers.

The vote should be tight with opinion polls showing between 39 and 53 percent support for the reform.

- Isolated Front -

Security has been a major campaign issue as the Broad Front looks to win a fourth consecutive term.

In power since 2005, the Front faces a tough test for reelection with voters angered by a stagnant economy, inflation of 7.5 percent and nine percent unemployment.

Their candidate this time around -- there is no reelection in Uruguay -- is 62-year-old Daniel Martinez, the former mayor of Montevideo.

He leads with 40 percent in opinion polls but that's not enough to win outright in the first round.

Former senator Luis Lacalle Pou of the center-right National Party has 28 percent but, unlike Martinez, he is more likely to benefit from a united front in an eventual second round on November 24.

Lacalle Pou, 46, would be able to count on historic rivals the liberal Colorado Party, led by economist Ernesto Talvi and the right-wing debutant Open Cabildo, led by former army commander-in-chief Guido Manini Rios.

In the last three elections, the Front didn't need alliances in Congress because it commanded an absolute majority, political scientist Eduardo Bottinelli told AFP.

However, it has left them isolated and means this time around the "second round is completely open."

The Broad Front is a coalition of leftist movements that in 2005 broke a near monopoly on the presidency shared by the National and Colorado parties since 1830, two years after Uruguay gained its independence.

Tabarez was the Front's first president before he was succeeded by former left-wing guerrilla Jose Mujica, who became a cult figure known as "the world's poorest president" due to an austere lifestyle that saw him give away most of his salary and drive to work in an old Volkswagen Beetle.

Voters on Sunday will also elect all 99 deputies and 30 senators in parliament.

The next president will assume his roll on March 1, 2020.

Polls open at 8:00 am (1100 GMT) and close at 7:30 pm.

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