Uruguayan Elections: The End Of Latin America’s Pink Tide?

Voting is compulsory in Uruguay, known colloquially as South America’s Switzerland. With a population of 3.5 million, it seems intuitive as to why this is the case. But Anthony Downs’ Median Voter Theorem (MVT) provides a more fine-grained approach as to why the adoption of such policies can be very beneficial. His argument is simple: election outcomes are ultimately decided by the median voter. The latter is not representative of the nation as a whole. This is because voter turn-out is greater in higher-income and well-educated groups. With compulsory voting, the median voter gradually moves closer to the average person. Similarly, political scientists found that compulsory voting significantly increased electoral support for leftist policy positions in referendums by up to 20 percentage points.

Established on February 5th 1971, the Frente Amplio (FA), a broad coalition of left-wing parties, has held the presidency and both houses of congress in the country since 2005. While the rustic personal style, Tumpamaros guerrilla backstory and humble wisdom of former President José “Pepe” Mujica earned widespread international adulation , the FA’s mainstay has been current President Tabare Vazquez, whom had already held office between 2005 and 2010. The FA’s thirteen years in power have been less dramatic than those of its counterparts elsewhere in Latin America. The country’s drive toward green energy has exponentially grown to nearing full autonomy, recreational marijuana has been legalized, and over the protests of its more leftist elements, new trade agreements notably with Chile and China have been courted. But constitutional limits prohibit consecutive presidential terms. As a result, Vazquez is barred from running again this year. Primaries are scheduled soon for June 30th.

According to Cifra, one of the country’s most notable polling stations, 30% of the electorate is expected to cast their vote for the FA. Center-right parties  Partido Nacional (PN) and Partido Colorado (PC) hold 29% and 14% of the vote, respectively. Historical divisions between the “White Party” (PN) and the Colorados (PC) have previously prevented them from joining forces effectively. But with the support for the opposition growing along with a felt fatigue with the FA, it is worth considering what the eclipse of one of the region’s last left-wing administrations would mean; perhaps strict policy to tackle the latent threat of crime and violence. Respondents to a survey by Opción Consultores in March 2018 put insecurity as the second-most important issue facing the country, placing it right after unemployment but ahead of improving health care, social equality, education and housing. Polls also found that 74% of the population supported proposals by the veteran PN senator and candidate Jorge Larrañaga. Among those: for the army to work with police in fighting crime. His though line on law and order is undoubtedly contributing to his strong standing as second-preferred candidate to represent the PN in the polls. 20 percentage points ahead of him is Luís Lacalle Pou, whose campaign is rather centered around liberalizing the economy and tackling public-sector deficits. The fight for the PC nomination is chiefly between economist Ernesto Talvi and former President Julio Maria Sanguinetti. They hold 50% and 40 % of voting intentions. It is easy to draw a comparison between Talvi and young Emmanuel Macron. Their tremendous success among the young, the educated, and all in all, those longing for ‘someone that actually knows the economy!’ exemplifies just this.

A week away from the primaries, FA’s front-runner is Daniel Martinez, scoring 40% of voting intentions for the party. Caroline Cosse, the mining minister, and Oscar Andrade, a trade unionist, registered 23% and 12% respectively. The combination of Martinez’s long trajectory in left-wing parties and an efficient, deficit cutting governorship of capital Montevideo from 2015 to 2019 is likely to secure him the FA nomination. Fuelling Tabare Vazquez’s efforts to show that the FA is taking public security seriously, the pragmatic credentials of Martinez may be enough to reassure voters that the FA can still be trusted to rein the deficit. And thus delivering a fourth consecutive presidential victory to the historic left-wing coalition.

Yet even if the FA retains power, it seems likely that the PN and PC will increase their current combined totals of 14 out of 31 seats in the Senate and 45 out of 99 in the House of Representatives, constraining the next president. And if Uruguay’s security situation deteriorates further, or the defeated PN or PC candidate enthusiastically endorses his rival in the second round, it could be enough to deliver a more conservative presidency.

This would not only augur a militaristic turn in public security, but would also likely result in severe cuts to public spending and challenges to Uruguay’s strong public-sector unions. It would also mean a clean sweep of right-leaning presidencies across Mercosur, the idling Southern Cone customs union, potentially paving the way for a dramatic liberalization in its external and internal economic policies. And where the FA has traditionally served as a moderating—some say stalling—influence on regional efforts to take a tougher line on the increasingly authoritarian government in Venezuela, a conservative president might show no such reluctance. This year’s elections could hold consequences for many more than just the 3.5 million inhabitants of Uruguay.

Anne-Sophie Neyra