With 15 years of rule from a center-left coalition, Uruguay stood as an exception to the rightwards shift in the continent seen over the last few years. But the trend seems to be coming to an end, as the center-right candidate Luis Lacalle Pou got a narrow victory over the ruling coalition’s Daniel Martínez in last Sunday’s presidential runoff, whose results are now being confirmed in the final recount.
The Lacalle Pou – Argimón electoral ticket secured 50.6 percent of non-blank ballots, barely getting past the 49.4 total of the Martínez – Villar formula, with less than 30,000 votes ending up as the difference makers.
“With the confirmation of the opposition victory, eight out of the ten Ibero-american countries in South America recognize Bolivia’s new government, with the sole exception of Argentina and Venezuela. Although some saw a possibility for the center-left to recover some momentum in the continent not so long ago in the region, this does not seem to be the case right now,” analyst Rosendo Fraga told The Essential.
The result was narrower than what pollsters expected.
After finishing close to Martínez in the general election, Lacalle Pou negotiated a “multicolor coalition” with candidates who came third and below in order to strengthen his case against Martínez in the runoff. Simple arithmetic suggested that Lacalle Pou’s 700,000 votes in the general election, plus an additional 600,000 votes coming from the traditional Colorado Party, the newly-founded Cabildo Abierto and other smaller figures, looked like enough for a comfortable victory over Martínez’s Frente Amplio, which only got 950,000 in October’s election.
But not all Colorado and Cabildo Abierto voters followed the suggestions of their party leaders, leaving Lacalle Pou’s tally at a mere 1.17 million, while Martínez added almost 200,000 new voters over the last month, finishing head to head with the winner with 1.14 million ballots.
Despite what many Frente Amplio voters felt was an uninspiring candidate, the fear of a new right-wing coalition with a militaristic, Bolsonaro-like component in the new Cabildo Abierto party, finally mobilized the base in November and managed to get out the vote, even if it was not enough to turn the election around.
“There ended up being a lot of door-to-door activism in the last few weeks, the Frente Amplio told people to try to convince those closest to them, unions emphasized the fear of a reform on their collective bargaining mechanisms. But there was some weariness with the government after 15 years, plus a successful opposition campaign on the issue of crime and an economy that stagnated over the last 5 years, even if purchasing power didn’t fall. That was enough for the proposals of change to beat those of continuity,” Uruguay’s TNU journalist Fabián Cardozo told The Essential.
Comparisons with Macri
The issues on Lacalle Pou’s agenda, as well as his links to powerful families in Uruguay, has made comparisons with Argentina’s outgoing president Mauricio Macri inevitable.
Lacalle Pou campaigned on a slogan arguing that “change is good”, similar to Macri’s “Cambiemos” (Let’s Change) motto in the 2015 Argentine race, although the Uruguayan President-elect said he would not apply the same policies as Macri, knowing that Argentina’s financial crisis would not be a good thing to be associated with.
Still, other similarities include the likely change in stance regarding Venezuela’s situation. “Uruguay did not have the courage to condemn Venezuela as a dictatorship, be that because of ideological affinity, personal affinity or even personal businesses in the case of some Frente Amplio members,” Lacalle Pou said during the campaign. The shared emphasis on crime from Lacalle Pou and his new hard-right allies in Cabildo Abierto also put him close to Macri. “The party is over,” Cabildo Abierto’s Manini Ríos, who took more than 10 percent of the vote in the first round, repeated during the campaign with regards to criminals.
That said, the new president is unlikely to have a head-on conflict with Argentina’s presidential election winner Alberto Fernández, as both have highlighted that they have friends in common and are looking forward to working together.
“Lacalle Pou has things in common with Macri, but it is important to remember that, in Uruguay, everything tends to be centrist. This is a coalition government and the Colorado Party, which is closer to the political center, will have 3 or 4 positions in the cabinet at least,” Raúl Santopietro, a journalist with the Revista Búsqueda magazine, told The Essential. “Lacalle spent all the campaign saying he would not go after abortion or salary councils, and both sides agreed that some reforms to social security were needed.”
Still, having Cabildo Abierto in the coalition, and with plans to make significant budget cuts whose sources have not been specified, there is reason to expect conflicts with the left, Santopietro said.
When looking at the results, one salient aspect was the start regional divide seen in the final vote count for the runoff. The center-left Frente Amplio was the comfortable winner in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo, as well as in the nearby department of Canelones, which is sometimes seen as an extension of it.
In all the remaining departments, Lacalle Pou’s National Party candidacy was the strong winner, portraying a remarkable similarity with a Uruguayan political history in which the National or “white” party often controlled the countryside while the Colorados dominated in Montevideo city. Even though the Colorado Party’s power has faded away, and despite the fact that its leaders went with Lacalle Pou for the runoff, part of its typically more progressive vote has gone to the Frente Amplio, analysts told The Essential.
“The Colorado voters showed they are divided, even though its leader (Ernesto) Talvi who is more economically liberal backed Lacalle Pou. I would say an important factor for the return of this divide was the lack of a figure of (former president José) Mujica´s standing among the common man within the Frente Amplio, who speaks plainly and addresses the concerns of the rural areas. Many of those rural voters went the other way this time,” Cardozo said.
Despite this divide, Uruguay does not look as potentially explosive as other countries in the region, with Frente Amplio candidates happy to concede defeat and help with the transition despite the narrow margin. According to Fraga, this is the reflection of an “institutional tradition” within the country, which contrasts with the tension, conflict and republican fragility seen in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Chile.