Elections in Uruguay: A Bellwether for the Latin American Left?

By Aaron T. Bell

Photo credit: Frente Amplio (FA) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: Frente Amplio (FA) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Uruguay’s elections on October 26 – once seen as a sure bet for the ruling Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate, former president Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010) – have become a tight race, perhaps signaling challenges for other left-leaning Latin American governments as well.  The FA’s slight slip in the polls since the beginning of 2014 has been matched by sustained growth by the Partido Nacional, led by Luis Lacalle Pou, the son of a former president.  While Vázquez still holds a ten-point lead, he’s well below the absolute majority needed to avoid a run-off election, whose numbers look even bleaker for the ruling party.  In February, Lacalle Pou was running twenty-five points behind Vázquez in a head-to-head matchup, but the latest polls now show him only two points back.  Lacalle Pou will need the support of his party’s long-time rival, the Colorado Party, to win a second round against the FA, but Colorado candidate Pedro Bordaberry has thus far refused to concede the first round to the PN despite trailing them by 17 points.  Nonetheless, Vázquez was defeated by just such a second-round alliance in 1999.  Complicating things for him, polling strongly suggests that FA could lose control of both houses of the national legislature this fall.

The Lacalle Pou campaign has focused on public security and education.  Uruguay’s homicide rate remains one of the lowest in the region, but a modest increase in crime in recent years has spurred both urban and rural Uruguayans to rank security as the principal problem facing the nation – well ahead of the second leading concern, education.  The October elections will coincide with a referendum on lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 for serious offensives, with polls showing Uruguayans closely divided but leaning toward approval.  On the education front, the FA’s Plan Ceiba has helped provide laptops to every student, but 2012 assessment data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still place Uruguay’s students well below the international average in math, science, and reading.

The FA’s political situation is paradoxical: it has presided over major socioeconomic improvements in the last decade and won international acclaim, but earned a more tepid response at home.  Uruguay’s decision to legalize marijuana was widely celebrated abroad as a step toward a more progressive drug policy in the region, but polls continue to show that a majority of Uruguayans oppose legalization, and it has not won the FA much support even among proponents of cannabis, who have resisted the creation of a registry of buyers.  (Vázquez recently suggested the registry would be used to develop rehabilitation programs.)  The FA seems to have not yet figured out how to respond effectively to the perception of insecurity, nor has it overseen a decided improvement in education, which is central to long-term development prospects.  With Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores facing an uncertain future, and political crises in Argentina and Venezuela simmering, the FA may be the first case of a larger regional rollback of the first wave of 21st century leftwing movements.

September 30, 2014

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