Daniel Martinez, the candidate for Uruguay's leftist Broad Front governing coalition, said the election had a festive atmosphere. (Photo: AFP)
The leftist ruling coalition's presidential candidate Daniel Martinez was ahead in Uruguay's general election on Sunday, according to early results, but faces a tough challenge to beat the center-right in a run-off next month.
The Broad Front's Martinez had around 38 percent with more than half the votes counted, well short of the absolute majority needed to win outright.
Former senator Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party was running second with 30 percent and set for the November 24 run-off, where he will be able to count on the support of two major rivals.
Third placed Ernesto Talvi, representing the Colorado party with 13 percent, and fourth-placed candidate Guido Manini Rios of the new right-wing party Open Cabildo, with 10 percent, both said they would support Lacalle Pou in the second round.
"Uruguay needs a change and to realize that change we call on our voters to support Lacalle Pou's candidacy to lead the coalition that will transform the country," said Talvi, an economist.
"Open Cabildo announces now it's support in the second round for Luis Lacalle Pou," said Manini Rios, a former army commander-in-chief.
Uruguayans meanwhile rejected a constitutional reform that included the establishment of a military police force, and voted to elect all 99 deputies and 30 senators in the Congress.
The vote came on the same day as a general election in Argentina next door, and against a backdrop of regional strife following massive street protests in Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia, the latter over alleged electoral fraud.
- 'Certainty, stability' -
Former Montevideo mayor Martinez, 62, was hoping to win a fourth straight term for the Broad Front, which has been in power since 2005.
President Tabare Vazquez was barred from standing for reelection.
Martinez said the Broad Front offered "certainty" and "stability" but security was a major issue in the election.
Uruguay has long been considered a bastion of peace and stability in an often turbulent region.
But security has been declining, with a sharp rise in some violent crimes reported last year.
In 2018, South America's second-smallest country registered a record 414 murders, up 45 percent on the year before.
The alarming hike fueled a debate over proposed constitutional changes meant to improve security, but it garnered only 47 percent and was defeated.
The new measures would have included the creation of a military National Guard, the establishment of life terms for the most serious offenses -- 32 years is the current maximum -- and authorizing police to conduct nighttime raids on the homes of suspected drug dealers.
The Broad Front always faced a tough challenge to hold onto power, with voters also angered by a stagnant economy, inflation of 7.5 percent and a nine percent unemployment rate.
As Lacalle Pou, 46, cast his vote in Canelones, a city north of Montevideo, he said he would start preparing for the second round "tomorrow" because "there's no time to waste."
- 'Robbed and destroyed' -
Daniel Segal, a 65-year-old businessman, voted in the same polling station as Martinez but said the time has come for change and ticked Talvi's box.
"He's the candidate with the most knowledge, the best educated. Here, these people (the Broad Front) robbed us and destroyed the country."
Martinez had his supporters at the polling station, too.
"I have a conscience, a memory, ethic, moral and human values: that's why I'm voting for the Broad Front," said Valentin Puntigliano, 18, a journalism student.
"The things the Front has said haven't all helped me directly. But they've done many good things for the rest of the population that is suffering the most," said mother-of-two Lucia Ricci, 34, who works at Montevideo's town hall.
The Broad Front is a coalition of leftist movements that in 2005 broke a near monopoly on the presidency shared by the National and Colorado parties since 1830, two years after Uruguayan independence.
Vazquez, the Front's first president, was succeeded by former left-wing guerrilla Jose Mujica, who became a cult figure known as "the world's poorest president" -- he gave away most of his salary and drove an old Volkswagen Beetle.
The next president will take office on March 1, 2020.