Socialist physician Tabare Vazquez swept to victory in this country's presidential election Sunday, bringing the left to power for the first time in Uruguayan history.
The triumph of Vazquez's Broad Front coalition marked an end to 179 years of domination of Uruguayan political life by the National and Colorado parties. It was also the latest in a string of victories for left-leaning, populist and anti-establishment leaders in South America.
"Uruguayans, this victory is yours!" Vazquez, 64, shouted from a hotel balcony overlooking a victory celebration that filled several city blocks in the capital.
Vazquez won 51 percent of the vote, just enough to avoid a runoff. The result was widely seen as a rejection of the economic policies of outgoing President Jorge Batlle; the candidate from his Colorado Party finished third in the seven-person field, taking about 10 percent of the vote.
Jorge Larranaga of the National Party came in second with slightly more than 30 percent of the vote, according to exit polls.
"We're sick of the Whites and Reds," said Adriana Curcio, a 33-year-old Montevideo resident, referring to the colors that symbolize the National and Colorado parties. "They've stolen everything and left the country dying of hunger."
Under Batlle's rule, Uruguay slipped into one of its worst recessions in history, with the official poverty rate reaching 31 percent, a scandalously high level in a country that long prided itself on being a middle-class paradise with the highest literacy rates in Latin America. With unemployment at 13 percent, thousands of Uruguayans have been migrating to Europe and the United States every month in search of work.
Batlle privatized government services and pursued free-trade policies that ravaged Uruguay's industrial sector.
Uruguayan voters gave another, loud rebuke to Batlle's polices Sunday when they voted by a 2-to-1 margin for a constitutional referendum prohibiting the privatization of water utilities.
"This is the first time in Uruguayan history that the party of the incumbent wasn't even a factor in the race," said Agustin Carranza of the Equipos Mori polling firm here. "The traditional parties have run out of steam. They've had the same leaders since the end of the dictatorship" in 1985, he added.
The son of a refinery worker who died of cancer, Vazquez was elected mayor of Montevideo in 1989. He has said that upon assuming the presidency, he would launch an emergency program to feed the poor and stimulate the economy.
In the past half-decade, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela also have elected leaders who ran on nationalistic and leftist political platforms. Once in power, though, most of those leaders have been cautious managers of their economies.
Vazquez traveled to Europe and the United States in recent months to persuade financial leaders that he would be a responsible steward of the country, which has a $12 billion foreign debt.