updated 11/1/2004 3:57:25 PM ET 2004-11-01T20:57:25

Uruguayans elected Tabare Vazquez as the nation’s first leftist president, vote tallies showed Monday, breaking a 170-year lock on power by two traditional parties and strengthening Latin America’s shift to the left.

Sunday’s vote highlighted a dramatic change for this longtime U.S. ally. Relations with the United States blossomed under outgoing President Jorge Batlle, a centrist, at a time when leftists took power in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, emphasizing greater distance from Washington on a range of economic, trade and foreign policy issues.

Uruguay’s vote coincided with elections in three other South Americans that saw wins for leftist and center-left governments in Venezuela and Chile.

Following regional trend
Pro-government candidates swept all but two of 23 governorships in Venezuela’s local elections Sunday, giving a boost to President Hugo Chavez. Chilean voters gave strong support to the center-left government of President Ricardo Lagos in nationwide municipal elections, though the right-wing opposition won the key, symbolic mayoral race in Santiago.

But Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was handed a big defeat in a major test of his ruling party’s influence, as his party lost mayoral runoffs in Sao Paulo and several other key cities.

Uruguay’s Electoral Court said Monday that with 99 percent of ballots counted, Vazquez, a 64-year-old oncologist and former mayor of the capital Montevideo, had won 50.2 percent or 1,113,615 votes.

The new leader claimed victory after exit polls showed he had won, triggering raucous celebrations. Thousands of Uruguayans thronged the streets overnight amid the boom of fireworks and chants of “Viva, Tabare!”

Vazquez has promised moderate policies with an emphasis on helping the poor.

“This is a proud night for Uruguayans,” said Vazquez, his words echoing over a crowd of thousands of flag-waving supporters gathered outside a downtown Montevideo hotel.

“I want you to know I’m going to defend you. This victory is yours,” he declared.

Economic turmoil fuels shift
Left and center-left victories in Latin American have been fueled by disenchantment with financial turmoil and free-market economic policies.

Rising public anger over a 2002 economic crisis in Uruguay set the backdrop for Vazquez’s win. The nation of 3.4 million was lashed by financial turmoil in neighboring Argentina two years ago, unleashing a severe currency devaluation and the collapse of several leading banks.

Vazquez’s victory broke a long-running hold on power by two of the country’s more traditional parties — the Colorado and the more centrist National parties — which alternately controlled the presidency for more than 170 years. Their dominance was interrupted occasionally by military rule, most recently during the country’s 1973-84 dictatorship.

The National Party’s Jorge Larranaga won 34 percent, while Guillermo Stirling of the Colorado Party had 10 percent, official results showed.

Both men conceded before initial results were even released. Batlle was barred by the constitution from seeking a second consecutive, five-year term.

“After all Uruguay has been through the last few years, we finally have something to cheer,” said Juan Gonzalez, a 36-year-old shoe salesman.

Uruguay, long one of Latin America’s most stable economies, is climbing out of an economic depression in which the economy shrank by 11 percent two years ago.

The upheaval left one of every three Uruguayans below the poverty line — a blow to a country where generous social benefits had for years assured one of the region’s highest living standards. Thousands of young Uruguayans emigrated to Europe and the United States.

Vazquez has stressed he will strengthen the country’s ties with regional neighbors Argentina and Brazil and will restore relations with Cuba.

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