Could Famously Liberal Uruguay Swing Right in Its Closest Election in Years?

World Politics Review, 25.10.2019
Laurence Blair, periodista independiente basado entre Londres y América Latina

Given everything else around it—from political turmoil in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro and sudden street protests in Chile to a fiercely contested election in Bolivia and a likely change of government in Argentina’s upcoming polls—Uruguay’s general elections Sunday may easily pass under the radar. Yet the vote on Oct. 27, set to be Uruguay’s closest in 15 years, could end a long period of leftist governance in this famously liberal country of 3.5 million people, further tilting South America to the right.

Conducted under a shadow of rising violent crime and sluggish GDP growth, the elections also coincide with a constitutional referendum that, if approved, would stiffen criminal sentences, boost police powers and see soldiers deploy in the street alongside law enforcement. This new era of tougher security policies would mark an inflection point for a society that has long prided itself for putting its 1973-1985 military dictatorship far behind it.

Uruguayans will enter voting booths Sunday to cast a single, compulsory vote to decide their president, vice president, 30 senators and 99 deputies for five-year terms that begin in March 2020. While seats in the General Assembly are determined by proportional representation—in 19 constituencies for deputies, and nationally for senators—presidential candidates must secure more than 50 percent of votes to avoid a runoff on Nov. 24.

But, as in 2009 and 2014, a second round is probably unavoidable, likely pitting 62-year-old Daniel Martinez, the candidate of the governing leftist coalition, the Broad Front, against a younger conservative challenger. Martinez, an engineer by training and mayor of Montevideo from 2005 to April of this year, is widely regarded as an efficient, cost-cutting administrator, but he is not naturally charismatic. He has run an upbeat campaign, promising to build on the achievements of his Broad Front predecessors in health care, education, renewable energy and drug reform—all under the slogan of “not losing the good stuff” but “doing it better.” Outgoing President Tabare Vazquez’s two non-consecutive terms bookended Jose “Pepe” Mujica’s popular presidency.

The Broad Front has consistently led the polls since January, but below the 49.5 percent of votes that Vazquez secured in the first round in 2014, just short of avoiding a runoff. Voter fatigue with the coalition has set in, fueled by several minor spending scandals and an economic slowdown linked to recessions in major trading partners Brazil and Argentina, even as Uruguay continues a 16-year streak of GDP growth, its longest ever. Martinez’s pick of labor organizer Graciela Villar as his running mate over more left-wing candidates may further turn off the party faithful.

Hoping to capitalize on this disenchantment is Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party. The 46-year-old lawyer lost to Vazquez by a comfortable margin in 2014, but has since sought to counter perceptions that he is a child of privilege—his father, Luis Alberto Lacalle, was president from 1995 to 2000—by emphasizing his 20 years in the General Assembly, the past four as a senator. Lacalle Pou’s vague platform centers around building a multiparty coalition, improving public security, reducing waste in public spending and boosting the economy.

Yet attacks by Martinez that fiscal reforms by his main rival would risk the kind of economic upheaval seen in neighboring Argentina appear to have hit their mark. The National Party’s support in polls has failed to crest 30 percent since December, and the party seems likely to come in at least 5 percentage points lower than the Broad Front on Sunday. Sapping votes from Lacalle Pou are two conservative rivals: the old guard Colorado Party, and a new, right-wing bloc called Cabildo Abierto, or the Open Forum.

The Colorado Party heads into the election under 62-year-old economist Ernesto Talvi, a political newcomer. Talvi has put forward policies to improve education and security, but has suffered from a lackluster campaign and the fact that only the Broad Front and National Party candidates were invited to participate in a televised debate. From a high of 19 percent in August, the Colorado Party has since fallen to around 10 percent in polls, although Talvi could prove kingmaker in the likely event of a runoff. There are growing suggestions of a coalition between Uruguay’s two traditional conservative parties—Talvi has said “the stars are aligning”—but with lingering, mutual dislike between them, voters may not agree.

The wild card in the election comes in the form of the Cabildo Abierto, founded in March, and its presidential candidate, Guido Manini Rios. The retired general, 60, was fired from his position as commander in chief of Uruguay’s armed forces in March after his outspoken—and unconstitutional—criticisms of new judicial investigations into human rights abuses by the military during the dictatorship. These were only his latest controversial statements defending the army and arguing for its greater involvement in public security. The new nationalist bloc, which seeks to attract conservative voters alienated by the more liberal social positions of the National Party, has consistently polled at around 12 percent in recent months. Manini Rios’ endorsement could likewise prove decisive ahead of a likely runoff on Nov. 24.

The presence of an unabashed military figure in the presidential race, already earning the epithet “Uruguay’s Bolsonaro,” will no doubt be on some Uruguayans’ minds when they vote in Sunday’s referendum. If approved, it will allow police to conduct nighttime raids, which are currently prohibited by the constitution; make some jail terms harsher; and create a national guard of 2,000 soldiers to carry out public order duties. The referendum was tabled after a petition drive organized by a National Party senator, Jorge Larranaga, in a campaign called Vivir Sin Miedo, or Live Without Fear, that acquired over 400,000 signatures—far above the necessary threshold of 280,000. The country’s homicide rate reached record levels in 2018, up by over a third from 2017, even as it fell somewhat in early 2019.

The proposed constitutional changes are deeply controversial in a country that prides itself on its liberal values—some 50,000 people marched against them Tuesday in Montevideo, and even Manini Rios doesn’t back them. Yet polls suggest that around half of voters are inclined to vote for the referendum. This is a sign, perhaps, of how national sentiment has subtly hardened since Vazquez and Mujica—now 79 and 84, respectively—first won hearts and minds well over a decade ago.

The Broad Font remains the favorite to win. But with a stubborn fiscal deficit, regional troubles and a likely divided General Assembly, a Martinez administration may feel compelled to trim spending, further liberalize parts of the economy and heed the public’s demands to take on crime. A tougher, more austere government seems likely, whatever the outcome of the next few weeks.

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