Uruguay’s ruling coalition candidate Tabare Vazquez acknowledged that Sunday's presidential election was headed for a runoff vote.
"This political force has been voted by the majority, but we'll have to go into a runoff," Vazquez told supporters after the exit polls were released. "It's a huge recognition to the nine years of the Broad Front's government. ... Uruguay will now have to decide between five more years of progressivism, or another type of government."
Exit polls showed Vazquez of the leftist Broad Front winning some 44 to 46 percent of the vote, leaving him short of the majority required to win outright in the first round. His nearest rival, Luis Lacalle Pou of the center-right National Party, was projected to secure 31 to 33 percent.
Opinion polls ahead of Sunday's vote had shown the two men neck-and-neck in a second round on Nov. 30.
Three polls indicated that Vazquez, 74, who was president from 2005 to 2010, would face center-right challenger, Lacalle Pou 41, of the National Party in a second-round vote.
Officials didn't expect to report the final count until Monday morning. However, Pedro Bordaberry, the candidate running in third place appeared to throw his weight behind Lacall Pou, saying he had the "best values" of the two contenders.
Uruguayans also voted for lawmakers. Exit polls predicted the Broad Front lost its legislative majority, but Vazquez said Sunday night that he expected his coalition to retain it.
As Uruguay's first socialist president, Vazquez was the first person to break 170 years of control by the long dominant Colorado and National parties. He pursued moderate economic policies that helped Uruguay outpace neighbors while improving life for the poor.
He left office with high popularity ratings that put his party's candidate, Jose Mujica, in the president's office. This time, Vazquez has vowed to continue with the Broad Front's social welfare plans during its decade in power.
Mujica, who was barred by the constitution from running for a second consecutive term, remains popular after steering Uruguay through a period of economic growth and rises in wages. He also gained worldwide notice for social reforms such as the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage. But critics say his administration failed to deal with problems in education, security and environmental protection — all pillars of his presidential agenda.
Lacalle Pou campaigned on a promise to tackle rising crime, improve education and modify the law that Mujica spearheaded to create the world's first national marketplace for legal marijuana. Although he would still allow consumers to grow pot plants at home for personal use, he said he would end the government's role in the production and sale of marijuana.
"What's being done well, we'll continue doing well, and what's wrong, we'll fix and do well now," Lacalle Pou said Sunday night.
Rising crime has raised security concerns among the South American nation's 3.2 million citizens. In education, Uruguay's students test among the worst in the world for mathematics, science and reading comprehension.
According to the exit polls, Uruguayans voted against changing the constitution to lower the age a person can be criminally charged as an adult from 18 to 16.