For a few hours early this week, this sleepy capital city had itself a party. After nine years of military rule, Uruguayans voted for civilian political party leaders and rousingly celebrated their step toward civilian rule.
They tumbled out of the seaport city's old colonial buildings, shaking the silence with flags and chants.
''Liberty, liberty,'' some yelled as they strode through the streets.
''It's going to end, it's going to end. The military dictatorship is going to end,'' others shouted. Drivers of the city's multitude of old Ford cars showed their approval, letting out a few rusty horn blasts.
The votes cast Nov. 28 are only a preliminary step toward democracy. Uruguayans chose about 500 people to go to political party conventions. These politicians, in turn, will select leaders of the three parties that the military government has allowed to function. The leaders will select candidates for the presidency. And if all goes according to plan, this smallest of South American countries will hold national elections in late 1984 and return to full civilian rule by March 1985, when President Gregorio Alvarez's term expires.
Although there were no government posts at stake in this week's election, Uruguayans sent up a signal of the direction they might go when full elections are held. Anti-military politicians gained the most votes, and thus the party conventions are bound to reflect that anti-junta stand. Some formerly popular politicians who associated with military rulers were not elected to the party congresses.
The next two years will be crucial for Uruguayan politics. The anti-government factions within the two major parties are now expected to try to forge a political alliance strong enough to negotiate an even earlier return to civilian rule.
''The military must now shorten their election timetable. It is up to the opposition now to decide what to accept and what not to accept,'' says Enrique Tarigo, editor of the influential weekly Opinar and a leader of the Colorados, one of strongest political parties.
In the meantime, new party officials will negotiate the framework of the future democracy by drawing up a new constitution with the armed forces.
The military, however, remains apprehensive about any relaxation of political controls. It worries, for instance, that possible return of thousands of exiles and release of some 600 political prisoners could lead to a reemergence of the Tupamaro guerrilla organization, which the military at least temporarily crushed in the early 1970s. There is a tendency among some military officers here to equate democracy with political and social chaos. Politicians, however, argue that the Tupamaro threat was stimulated by the corrupt practices of the old party leadership.
The military also worries that a civilian government may abolish the nation's military national security council, which acts as a watchdog over internal politics and defense matters. Many anti-junta politicians elected this week do favor its abolition.
In 1980 the military drafted a constitution that would have given it an upper hand in any civilian government. But it was resoundingly defeated when submitted to the public for approval.
Some here are optimistic that civilian rule will restore economic soundness to the nation once so stable that it was called the ''Switzerland of the Americas.''
But others say the is not likely to happen soon, for the country is in an economic crisis. A combination of free-market economic policy and tight money has led to the virtual bankruptcy of domestic industry.
The country's crucial farming sector has been sapped by speculative borrowing in the midst of wildly fluctuating international meat prices. Whole farms have defaulted on debts, bringing many local banks to the point of collapse. Unemployment is more than 13 percent. Military opponents would also like to see agrarian reform.
On the eve of the election - in what some call a clear attempt to sabotage the political campaigns of military opponents - the government floated the local currency, announced an overhaul of trade tariffs, and decreed a 15 percent wage rise for public-sector employees. But the vote showed that a majority of Uruguayans regarded the measures as too little, too late.
Only three parties were allowed to participate in this week's elections - the traditional Colorados and Blancos, and the rightist Civic Union Party. The Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communist parties remain banned.
Anti-government factions within the two parties secured over 60 percent of the votes, taking control of their conventions. Some left-wing voters - about six percent of the voters - put blank ballots in voting boxes to protest the military's decree over which parties could participate.
The election's biggest loser is former Colorado President Jorge Pachaco Areco , a armed forces ally, who obtained less than 28 percent of the vote for his party congress. Mr. Areco served as Uruguay's ambassador in Washington, returning home last year.
The election's biggest winner is Wilson Ferreira, leader of the anti-government faction of the Blanco Party. Ferreira conducted his campaign from exile in London. The Blancos gained 46.4 percent of the vote and the Colorados took 39.7 percent.