Presidential Elections in Uruguay: Former Guerrilla vs Neoliberal

José Mujica

The streets of the Uruguayan capital are a blur of white, red and blue in the final stretch to Sunday’s elections, which the governing left-wing Broad Front (FA) coalition stands a good chance of winning. The big question now is whether the FA will win outright on Sunday, or will have to go to a runoff in November. Opinion polls indicate that the left-wing coalition’s candidate, former guerrilla fighter José Mujica, will not take the 50 percent plus one vote needed on Sunday to avoid a second round.

José Mujica

(IPS) – The streets of the Uruguayan capital are a blur of white, red and blue in the final stretch to Sunday’s elections, which the governing left-wing Broad Front coalition stands a good chance of winning.

The white colour of the centre-right National Party – which provides its alternative name, Blanco ("white" in Spanish) – and red, the colour of the rightist Colorado (Red) Party merge with the red, white and blue of the Broad Front (FA).

The National and Colorado Parties, which were founded in 1836, dominated the political life of the country until 2005, when the FA won the national elections for the first time ever.

The big question now is whether the FA, which was born in 1971 from the political unrest of the 1960s, will win outright on Sunday, or will have to go to a runoff in November.

In Sunday’s elections in Uruguay, where voting is compulsory, 2.6 million voters will not only elect a legislature and a new president, but will also cast ballots in two plebiscites, on whether to repeal the 1986 amnesty law and whether to allow Uruguayans living abroad to vote.

The amnesty law, which was ratified by voters in a 1989 plebiscite, put an end to prosecutions of soldiers and police accused of human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship – when Uruguay had the largest number of political prisoners and torture victims in the region in proportion to the population – and forced the justice system to consult the executive branch on whether or not to go ahead with an investigation, whenever human rights charges from that time period were filed.

That effectively blocked all trials until 2005, when President Vázquez gave the green light to a series of prosecutions that led to the imprisonment of former dictators Bordaberry (1973-1976) and Gregorio Álvarez (1981-1985), as well as eight other human rights violators.

The amnesty law will be annulled if more than 50 percent of voters cast "Yes" ballots in the plebiscite.

"Plebiscites in Uruguay are complicated, especially when they occur simultaneously with elections," said Aguiar. The Equipos MORI polling firm found that 44 percent of respondents would vote in favour of repealing the amnesty law, and 49 percent would vote for Uruguayans abroad to be allowed to cast ballots in elections here.

Opinion polls indicate that the left-wing coalition’s candidate, former guerrilla fighter José Mujica, will not take the 50 percent plus one vote needed on Sunday to avoid a second round.

His main rival, former president Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-1995) of the National Party, is staking all his bets on a runoff, in which he would hope to draw the votes of the supporters of the Colorados and two minor parties, to put him over the top.

It is highly like that the FA won’t win on Sunday, but it "shouldn’t have any problem" winning in the second round, on Nov. 29, said Daniel Bouquet, research coordinator at the Political Science Institute of the public University of the Republic.

"The opinion poll averages over the last few months show that around 45 percent of respondents support the left, while backing for the National Party has declined," to about 30 percent, he told IPS.

"If the left garners at least 47 percent of the vote on Sunday – the most pessimistic scenario according to the polls – Mujica basically can’t lose in the second round," said Bouquet.

Colorado Party candidate Pedro Bordaberry – the son of Juan María Bordaberry, who was president when the armed forces staged the 1973 coup that ushered in a 12-year dictatorship (over which he continued to rule for three: 1973-1976) – comes in a distant third, with poll ratings of 12 percent.

The Colorado Party, which ruled for most of the country’s history as an independent nation, laid the foundations of modern-day Uruguay under statesman and two time president José Batlle y Ordóñez (1856-1929). But it has still not recovered from the debacle it suffered in the 2004 elections.

There are also two minor presidential candidates: Pablo Mieres of the centrist Independent Party, who has between one and three percent support in the polls, and Raúl Rodríguez of Asamblea Popular, a radical leftist breakaway of the FA, who has around one percent backing.

According to Bouquet, the forecast of a second-round triumph by the left is also based on the fact that Mujica’s chief adversary, Lacalle, "is a weak candidate, because he faces a great deal of voter resistance."

Sociologist César Aguiar, however, was more cautious with regard to the FA’s chances in a runoff. "The left will not have everything on its side, because the National Party has carried out a strong campaign in the last few days" which would put it in a position to fight on an equal footing in November, he told IPS.

With respect to Sunday’s elections, "no result can be ruled out at this time, although the most likely outcome is that the FA will win a majority in parliament," but will fall just short of an outright victory, said Aguiar, president of Equipos MORI, one of the country’s leading polling companies.

The possibility of a government whose party has a majority in Congress does not worry Aguiar. "Unlike many of my colleagues, I believe it’s preferable to have a president, from whatever party, who has a Congress aligned in his favour," as in the case of current President Tabaré Vázquez, he said.

While he admitted that the experiences of some other Latin American countries could give rise to worry and mistrust, he said "there is a very important element in Uruguay: public opinion is much more homogeneous than its political leadership, it’s much more towards the centre, and it is much more prone to moderation, whether on the left or the right."

Both Mujica and Lacalle are more towards the extremes of the ideological spectrum than their voters, he pointed out. "I’m convinced that both of them have left their potential voters unsatisfied, probably because they have been forced to play on terrain that isn’t of their choosing," he said.

Mujica, whose image and background differ drastically from those of Vázquez, has based his campaign on the achievements of the outgoing government, boosted by his choice of running-mate, Danilo Astori, who was economy minister during almost the entire administration.

That was, according to observers, the only way to draw support from the more moderate sectors of the FA while at the same time ironing out problems, including public tiffs with Vázquez, who led the left to government – as mayor of Montevideo in 1990 and as president in 2005 – for the first time, and is today the undisputed leader of the left-wing coalition.

The FA candidate’s strong cards include impressive indicators, such as 35.4 percent cumulative GDP growth since 2005; a record drop in unemployment, from 13 to seven percent, with the creation of 200,000 jobs; and a drop in the poverty rate from 32 to 20 percent and a reduction of extreme poverty from four to 1.5 percent in this South American country of 3.3 million people sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil.

In addition, the administration forecasts 1.2 percent GDP growth this year, despite the global economic crisis, which has caused negative growth overall in Latin America.

The government also began implementing a reform of the health system, making significant progress towards universal coverage.

But the Vázquez administration’s "jewel in the crown" is the Plan Ceibal, which made Uruguay the first country in the world to provide a laptop, with Internet connection, to every primary schoolchild in the public education system.

From guns to (cut) flowers

While Vázquez is a quiet-spoken oncologist who became politically prominent in the Socialist Party when he was elected mayor of the capital in 1989, the candidate to succeed him is a blunt-talking former leader of the Tupamaros (MLN-T) urban guerrilla movement which was active in the 1960s and became a political party after the 1973-1985 military dictatorship.

Mujica, a former senator and agriculture minister known for his colourful, colloquial expressions, traded in his comfortable casual clothes for the occasional sports jacket or suit after his advisers insisted.

The 74-year-old candidate, who now grows flowers on his farm, is a far cry from the young guerrilla fighter of the 1960s, who spent more than 12 years in prison in the extreme conditions reserved for the eight insurgent leaders held as "hostages" to prevent the MLN-T from taking up arms again after the group was defeated by the military in 1972.

Neoliberal policies – a thing of the past?

His rival, the 68-year-old Lacalle, who has campaigned on a tough anti-crime platform, promises more of the neoliberal policies that he implemented as president in the first half of the 1990s, at a time when the Washington Consensus package of liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation policies was in vogue in Latin America.

But Lacalle was unable to push through one of the main aims of his administration – the privatisation of public utilities and other enterprises, which was blocked by voters in a 1992 plebiscite that overthrew the law which paved the way for the sales of the companies.

However, the grandson of the National Party’s historical leader, Luis Alberto de Herrera (1873-1959), has somewhat toned down his neoliberal agenda, perhaps due to the growing rejection of that school of thought as a result of the global financial crisis, or because of the influence of his running-mate, the more social democratic-oriented Jorge Larrañaga.