MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Socialist physician Tabare Vazquez swept to a landslide 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-Progressive Encounter 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, 65, shouted from a hotel balcony overlooking a victory celebration that filled several city blocks in this capital city. "Celebrate, celebrate!"
Vazquez won 51% 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 of his Colorado Party finished third in the seven-person field, taking about 10% of the vote.
Jorge Larranaga of the National Party came in second with slightly more than 30% 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 administration, Uruguay slipped into one of its worst recessions in history, with the official poverty rate reaching 31%, a 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%, thousands of Uruguayans each month are migrating to Europe and the United States 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 2 to 1 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.
Vazquez was elected mayor of the capital in 1989. He said that upon assuming the presidency, he would launch an emergency program to feed the poor and stimulate the economy.
Vazquez's victory comes two years after the most dramatic triumph for the South American left: the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president of neighboring Brazil in 2002.
In the last half-decade, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela also have elected leaders who ran on platforms derived from various nationalistic and leftist ideologies. Once in power, though, most of those leaders have been, like Lula, cautious managers of their economies.
In the months before Uruguay's election, Vazquez traveled to Europe and the United States to reassure financial observers that he would be a responsible steward of the country, which has a $12-billion foreign debt. In addition, Vazquez said he would honor an austerity agreement with the International Monetary Fund even though he once opposed it.
Montevideo is a stronghold of the leftist coalition and throughout the day Sunday, thousands of Vazquez supporters gathered along 18 July Avenue waving the red, blue and white flag of the Broad Front coalition.
By late Sunday, after four exit polls placed Vazquez above 50%, tens of thousands of his supporters filled the city center.
"There's less work, less jobs every day," said Jesus Abrines, 21, explaining why he voted for Vazquez. "What I know about the Whites and the Reds isn't very positive. I voted for the Broad Front because it's time to give them a chance."
Members of the National Party complained of irregularities and said their voters were being intimidated in Montevideo, but stopped short of saying they would challenge the result.
"Throughout the entire day, we've had dozens of reports of destroyed, ripped and vandalized ballots," said Ruperto Long of the National Party. "They are not isolated incidents."
Vazquez had run for president twice before. In 1999, he won the first round of voting, but fell short of a majority and lost to Batlle in a runoff when the National and Colorado parties united for the first time behind a single candidate.