Uruguay’s Sunday night presidential elections concluded with none of the candidates earning the outright majority needed to win in the first round.
The two leading candidates, Daniel Martínez of the ruling Frente Amplio ("Broad Front") coalition and Luis Lacalle Pou of the opposing Partido Nacional ("National Party") will face off in a run-off election to be held on November 24.
Martinez had around 38 percent with a third of votes counted, well short of the absolute majority needed to win outright. His rival, former senator Lacalle Pou was running second with 30 percent.
Other candidates include the economist Ernesto Talvi, representing the Parido Colorado ("Colorado Party"), who was third with 13 percent and former Army commander-in-chief Guido Manini Ríos of the new right-wing party Cabildo Abierto ("Open Cabildo), who had 10 percent.
The small South American nation has been governed since 2005 by the left-leaning Frente Amplio coalition, whose achievements include laws to approve gay marriage and the creation of the world's first national marketplace for legal marijuana.
But opponents have capitalised on growing disenchantment with the government over slowing economic growth and rising insecurity.
Both leading candidates on Sunday emphasized the stability of Uruguay's democracy in a region that has recently been rocked by social upheaval and protests in countries including Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
"Uruguay has become an oasis of certainties in the region," said Martínez as he cast his ballot.
Lacalle Pou said that independent of the election result Sunday, what Uruguay has to offer "is institutionality, knowing what will happen, knowing what can be believed."
With the Broad Front at the helm, Uruguay has seen significant economic growth. Poverty has dropped dramatically, to 8.1 percent, while the legalization of gay marriage, abortion, and the sale of marijuana in pharmacies has strengthened the country's reputation as a trailblazer in the region.
"Even though I'm a Christian and I'm not in favour of things like legalising abortion, I'm voting for the Broad Front because the country has progressed, people are better off," said Nicolás Robledo, 24, who works at car wash. "Who could buy themselves a car before?"
But the current administration of Tabaré Vázquez has been hampered by scandals that have taken a bite out of its approval ratings. Vice-President Raúl Sendic had to resign in 2017 over corruption allegations, the government has failed to address a dismal high school graduation rate, and a record 414 homicides last year have made public safety an urgent issue.
"I think Martínez is a good person, but I'm not voting for him because I don't want the Broad Front to win and open the door for some of the shameless people in this government to show up," said Susana López, a 60-year-old shop worker.
Martínez, a 62-year-old engineer, has urged voters to stick to the process of "change and social justice" that his party promotes. He was a union leader at the Uruguayan state energy company before he left government to work in the private sector. He returned to lead the same energy company and went on to become minister of industry and energy.
Lacalle Pou, 47, who was the runner up in the 2014 election, has a strong political pedigree, with a father who was president and a mother who was a senator. He has been plugging his own policies and those of a range of other parties from the centre-left to the right that he hopes will help him form a government.
Although the Broad Front led in the polls, political scientist Adolfo Garcé said a second round win could be difficult. A number of other parties have already declared their intention to support the National Party or the candidate with the strongest chance of beating the incumbent in a second round.
The 79-year-old Vázquez, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in August a few weeks after the death of his wife, cast an early vote on Sunday and said, "I have the hope and desire of placing the presidential sash on the next president of the republic," a ceremony that will take place on March 1.
Uruguayans also elected 99 deputies and 30 senators and voted on a series of referendums on tough on crime measures. They include introducing possible life imprisonment for the most serious crimes, creating a new unit of the military to help with public safety, and scrapping early release of prisoners convicted of the worst offences.
The balance of power in Congress will influence the run-off and Lacalle Pou’s stated goal of building a governing coalition with other opposition parties.