WITH the successful completion of Uruguay's presidential voting, democracy has taken another forward step in Latin America. The road from militarism to democracy has not proved easy, as the current turmoil in several Central American nations attests.
But the trend has been particularly clear in South America. In recent years citizens have increasingly chafed under the restrictions of authoritarian leadership, which, they have discovered, has often been unable to solve major national problems. Since 1980, civilian control has replaced military rule in five nations: Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru. Brazil is in the process of moving in this direction. And in Chile probably a majority of citizens now oppose the dictatorial government of President Augusto Pinochet, although his recent crackdown on dissent appears to have wiped out the prospect of a return to democracy before the expiration of his term in 1989. In South America only Paraguay remains firmly a military dictatorship.
Next March 1 Uruguay is scheduled to complete its switchover, with the military to yield power to centrist Julio Sanguinetti as he is inaugurated president. Presuming that occurs on time, it will mark the end of 11 years of military rule in a nation that, until the generals' takeover, was such a stable democracy that it was sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of South America.
Given that tradition, it is not surprising that voters chose a centrist candidate in Mr. Sanguinetti, who proclaimed that his nation ''has now entered a period of dignity,'' and that his party was ''ready to undertake the task of national reconstruction.'' During the election campaign it had been said that Uruguayans were less concerned with the identity of the new president than with the substitution of democracy for military rule.
Sanguinetti, a political moderate with business support, is confronted by economic challenges, in common with leaders of several other Latin nations. Uruguay's inflation is 60 percent a year, its unemployment 14.5 percent, and its foreign debt $5 billion. The new president must demonstrate the ability to deal with these problems more competently than the military government has.
Should unpopular economic measures have to be taken, it is important that Sanguinetti be able to gain general acceptance for them, so as not to incur a high level of protest which the military could use as an excuse for seizing control again. In 1973 labor and student unrest, coupled with leftist terrorism, paved the way for the military to oust the civilian government in which Sanguinetti was a Cabinet minister.