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Ruling party faces exit as Uruguay votes for president

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Montevideo (AFP)

Uruguay's long-dominant leftist ruling party is facing 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 center-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."

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," Wood told AFP.

Inflation is running at 7.5 percent and unemployment at 9.0 percent.

- Legalized cannabis -

The Broad Front, a coalition of leftist movements, can point to a record of progressive government since it broke a decades-long conservative stranglehold on government in 2005.

Uruguay stood out on the international stage by approving abortion and gay marriage, and the small nation pioneered the legalization of cannabis in 2013.

But Lacalle Pau has tapped in to voter concerns over the country's high tax rates, and promised to look elsewhere to raise the $900 million needed to reduce the public deficit, nearly 5.0 percent of GDP.

"Uruguay can't bear any more taxes," he told supporters.

The latest polls show the challenger with 51 percent, comfortably ahead of the 43 percent 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," Hare told AFP.

But security has been declining, with a sharp rise in some violent crimes reported last year.

Some 2.6 million voters are called to the polls Sunday. The next president will take office in March for five years.

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