By Malena Castaldi
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Ruling coalition candidate Tabare Vazquez had a strong lead in Uruguay's presidential election on Sunday, exit polls showed, but he appeared to fall short of taking victory in the first round and will likely face a runoff vote next month.
One poll by Consultora Factum showed Vazquez of the leftist Broad Front coalition winning 46 percent support and Luis Lacalle Pou of the centrist National Party with 31 percent. Vazquez needed 50 percent of the vote to avoid a second-round runoff.
A second exit poll conducted by Equipos Consultores had Vazquez winning 44 percent and Lacalle Pou taking 33 percent.
If the trend is confirmed by the South American country's electoral court, it would pave the way for a nerve-jangling second round on Nov. 30. Opinion polls ahead of Sunday's vote had shown Vazquez and Lacalle Pou neck-and-neck in a runoff.
Vazquez, 74, first brought the Broad Front to power in 2005. His blend of pro-market economic policies and social welfare measures that slashed poverty rates won broad support but he was constitutionally barred from a second consecutive term.
His close ally and now outgoing President Jose Mujica continued the model, which remains popular with many.
But others have become disenchanted with the scale of Mujica's social reforms, including the legalization abortions and marijuana production and distribution.
"So we are killing babies now and the state will sell marijuana," said Adriana Herrera, a 68-year-old pensioner. "My frustration is not just with the handout policies but also with the laws that have been approved that are terrible for the country."
The Broad Front's battle for a third straight term has faced stiff competition from Lacalle Pou, 41, who gained in popularity after his unexpected victory in his party's primaries, campaigning on a platform for change.
Lacalle Pou told Reuters last week he would try to repeal the state-regulated production and sale of marijuana if he won.
Early official results were expected at 10 p.m. (2000 EDT)
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In a second round, Lacalle Pou could secure the support of right-wing Colorado Party candidate Pedro Bordaberry. One exit poll showed Bordaberry, the son of a former dictator, winning the support of 13-14 percent of voters on Sunday.
Bordaberry's backing for Lacalle Pou could make the runoff vote a tight one.
Uruguay's $55 billion economy has grown an average 5.7 percent annually since 2005. The government forecasts lower growth of 3 percent this year, although that is still better than in neighboring giants Argentina and Brazil.
The number of Uruguayans living in poverty has fallen sharply to 11.5 percent from more than a third in 2006.
"I want to stick with the Broad Front that ensures success," said Soledad Fernandez, a 27-year old student. "Vazquez and Mujica looked after the vulnerable people."
Lacalle Pou's supporters argue it is time for change. They say the surfing enthusiast and father of three is more in touch with Uruguay today than the socialist old-guard and that he brings a fresh face to Uruguayan politics. Vazquez is 74-years-old.
While financial markets believe the Broad Front's economic policies are sound, some analysts say Lacalle Pou is more likely to rein in an above-target fiscal deficit and an inflation rate almost in double digits.
Voters also elect lawmakers on Sunday. Neither the Broad Front nor the National Party are likely to win a majority in Congress, meaning the next president will face a tougher time than Mujica in passing laws.
(Additional reporting by Esteban Farat; Writing by Sarah Marsh and Richard Lough; Editing by Kieran Murray,)