MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) – Leftist candidate Tabare Vazquez declared victory in Uruguay’s presidential election Sunday after exit polls showed him surging past two rivals with a majority of the votes, apparently aligning this small South American country with a regionwide political shift leftward.

Victory for the 64-year-old Vazquez, who would become the first leftist president in Uruguayan history, would add the nation to Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela as countries where leftist or center-left leaders came to power on public disenchantment with financial turmoil and with U.S.-backed free-market economic policies. Vazquez has promised moderate policies, with an emphasis on helping the country’s poor.

“Uruguayans, let’s celebrate!” Vazquez, an oncologist and former mayor of Montevideo, shouted from a balcony Sunday night, addressing thousands of chanting, cheering supporters in the capital.

Both the CIFRA and Factum polling groups gave nearly identical figures of 51 percent for Vazquez of the Broad Front leftist coalition and 34 percent for runner-up Jorge Larranaga of the National Party. The exit polls did not give a margin of error.

Vazquez was widely seen as the front-runner in a race against Larranaga of the National Party and Guillermo Stirling of the ruling Colorado party. Both men later conceded the race before initial official results were released. Stirling was showing running with around 10 percent of the ballot in the exit polls.

Thousands of Vazquez supporters cheered raucously and waved flags in the streets as those two exit polls and a third one released on television late Sunday upheld earlier projections of a one-round victory for Vazquez.

The balloting proceeded calmly as Uruguay’s 2.4 million eligible voters lined up to cast their ballots at some 6,000 polling sites nationwide. The winner will succeed President Jorge Batllem who was barred from seeking a second consecutive, five-year term.

“I want to thank all Uruguayans for this magnificent civic party,” Vazquez said in a victory speech. “We’re not going to let you down.”

Long caravans of his supporters drove through downtown Montevideo, honking horns and flashing the “V” for victory sign in anticipation.

This was the first electoral defeat for two of the country’s more traditional parties. The Colorado and the more centrist National parties alternated in the presidency for more than 170 years. That traditional party lock on power has been interrupted occasionally by military rule, most recently during the country’s 1973-84 dictatorship.

Many Uruguayans who supported Vazquez blamed the country’s 2002 economic crisis on leaders from the two parties.

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

The upheaval left one out 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.

“I want a change and he’s the best alternative,” said Fabian Perez, a 31-year-old employee at a bus company who favored Vazquez. “We need someone in office that can halt the surge in poverty and turn things around so young people here have a future. I’m fed up with the status quo.”

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

“The government keeps reeling off statistics they say indicate the economy is gaining strength, but all I see are more homeless people, more beggars in the street, people looking for jobs,” said Lucia Salazar, a 42-year-old secretary, who also voted for Vazquez. “We can’t continue like this.”

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