Uruguay presidential vote could lead to changing of political guard

Uruguayans will vote on Sunday in a presidential ballot that appears set to sweep the right-leaning opposition into power and end the centre-left’s 15-year rule amid widespread political turbulence in the region.

Conservative opposition candidate Luis Lacalle Pou is leading in the polls against ruling party candidate Daniel Martinez after striking key coalition deals following a first-round vote in October.

The likely political shift in the country of 3.5 million people comes amid a series of shocks in the region, with neighbouring Argentina pivoting back to the left, Bolivia convulsed by political crisis, and Chile’s right-wing government being hammered by protests. Late last year, Brazil shifted rightward.

There are fewer bracing signs of discontent in Uruguay. While 61 per cent of Uruguyans expressed trust in democracy in a 2018 survey conducted by Latinobarometro, that was the lowest rating for the country since 1995.

“The tone of the campaign hasn’t been the best in these last weeks, especially on the part of Martinez. There are signs of ‘la grieta,”‘ said academic Adolfo Garce, using the term known in Argentina to define that country’s division into two irreconcilable political blocks. “I don’t think the blood will reach the river, but we have to open our eyes because the lessons learned by a society are never definitive.”

In Uruguay, the rise of the opposition National Party to the long-standing ruling coalition follows a slowing economy and rising fears about crime. The party, which last held the presidency in 1995, leads a coalition of five mostly conservative parties.

Those alliances are proving key. Lacalle Pou came second in the Oct. 27 vote with around 29 per cent of the vote, behind Martinez’s Broad Front at 39 per cent.

But in the days that followed, Lacalle Pou formed an alliance with the Colorado Party, which earned 12 per cent in the first round, with Open Cabildo that scored 11 per cent and with the People’s Party and the Independent Party, each of which earned 1 per cent.

The Broad Front, on the other hand, did not secure the support of any additional party.

The Oct. 27 election also renewed Uruguay’s parliament, filling the spots of 30 senators and 99 deputies. The Broad Front lost the majority that it has counted on in the last 15 years to the new alliance Lacalle Pou has assembled.

Economy lagging

Security and growth are central for his support base. While still growing, Uruguay’s farm-driven economy has slowed markedly and was up 0.1 per cent in the second quarter.

“Lacalle is the president who can improve the country, change what Broad Front did wrong economically and especially security,” said Mariela Barcia, a 51-year-old teacher who voted for Lacalle Pou in October.

Daniel Nunez, a 27-year-old student, voted in October for the Colorado Party, now allied with Lacalle Pou, and said he would back the opposition leader.

“I think it is good for democracy that there is a change of government. There are many things that Broad Front has done well and others very badly, so I hope we change to improve what is wrong,” said Nunez.

Uruguayan presidential candidate Daniel Martinez, right, from the ruling party Frente Amplio (Broad Front), poses with a supporter during his campaign closing rally in the city of Florida on Nov. 20. (Mariana Greif/Reuters)

Pre-election forecasts vary, but all major opinion polls show Broad Front falling behind.

Supporters of the socialist-leaning current administration are concerned that state support could be pulled back under a conservative leader.

“I don’t forget what this government did for the retirees, for the young people. I don’t know if all that is going to be maintained with Lacalle,” said Marisa Perdomo, a 63-year-old retiree, who will vote for Martinez.

Martinez is the party’s candidate as the country’s constitution mandates that a president — in this case, Tabare Vasquez — cannot serve consecutive terms.

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