Hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans turned out today to vote in the country's first national elections after 11 years of military domination.
The presidential race pitted lawyer and human rights activist Alberto Zumaran, 44, of the Blanco Party against former education minister Julio Sanguinetti,48, of the Colorado Party. Most observers predicted a dead heat.
The Blanco (white) and Colorado (red) parties are traditional adversaries rarely far apart ideologically. Before the military took control in 1973, the Blancos were contesting for the slightly more liberal position of the Colorados, who dominated during Uruguay's era of social-welfare democracy that began in 1903.
A third party, the leftist Broad Front coalition, is expected to improve its last presidential effort, in 1971, when the front won 18 percent of the vote. The front is favored to win the Montevideo mayorship, Uruguay's second most important political post.
A relatively subdued mood prevailed in Montevideo as thousands stood in line outside polling stations in warehouses, schools and movie theatersunder the bright sun of the Southern Hemisphere's spring. Partisan euphoria sent thousands of flag-waving, horn-honking people into city streets on recent nights.
The nation's 7,872 polling stations closed at 7:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. EST), and electoral coordinator Carlos Pereira said more than 90 percent of the country's 2,197,503 voters cast ballots. Voting is mandatory.
Besides electing a president, Uruguayans voted for a vice president, 129 members of parliament, 19 provincial mayors and hundreds of provincial council members.
With 10 percent of the vote counted, the Colorado Party was leading the Blancos by about 38.4 percent to 34.9 percent.
International observers expressed admiration for the pride with which Uruguayans carried out their election. Despite the military interlude, ordinary citizens are quick to tell foreigners that democracy is a national birthright.
Visiting Rep. Robert G. Torrecelli (D-N.J.) said, "The elections are being conducted with a level of enthusiasm which as an American I am unaccustomed to see. Any American who comes to Uruguay thinking he has something to teach these people about democracy will find he has a lot to learn."
Unlike in Chile, efforts here to return to civilian government have been relatively peaceful, but the military has exacted a price.
Two of the three major party's original candidates were prohibited from running for president: ex-senator Wilson Ferreira Aldunate of the Blancos, who has been in jail since returning from exile in June, and retired general Liber Seregni of the Broad Front, who was released this year after nine years in jail.