One of the most salient facts that’s been repeated over the course of this year’s presidential elections in Latin America — first Colombia, then Bolivia and, of course, Brazil last weekend — is that just two incumbents have lost reelection bids in more than three decades of growing regional democracy.
That’s true, of course.*
But many countries in Latin America limit presidents to a single lifetime term or, at least, prohibit reelection.
That’s the case in Uruguay, where presidents are not eligible for reelection, though they are eligible to run for a second non-consecutive term. That’s why Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay’s former president, is the nominee of the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and why he nearly won the first round of the Uruguayan presidential election outright on Sunday.
Vázquez is vying to win a third consecutive term for Frente Amplio, following the administration of his former agricultural minister, José Mujica, who has pursued a more socially progressive agenda since 2010 than Vázquez implemented between 2005 and 2010. Vázquez, back in 2009, actually preferred that his finance minister to Mujica. But Mujica’s wide following on the Uruguayan left powered him to the coalition’s presidential nomination.
As president, Mujica (who was elected as a senator on Sunday) signed into law a bill legalizing abortion that Vázquez once vetoed. He has also, famously, introduced the most comprehensive marijuana legalization reforms within Latin America, while espousing an aura of almost extreme humility.
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Though a Vázquez restoration would hew Uruguayan policy slightly more to the center, the fate of Mujica’s efforts to legalize marijuana use and other policy matters, including a pledge to take in prisoners from the US facility on Guantánamo Bay, hinge on Vázquez’s victory in the November 30 runoff.
Vázquez helped build the Frente Amplio as a coalition of leftist parties in opposition to the two longstanding parties in Uruguayan politics, the conservative Partido Nacional (National Party) and the liberal Partido Colorado (Colorado Party). Despite fierce competition between ‘red’ (colorados) and ‘white’ (blancos) elites for nearly two centuries, Uruguay never really had a viable progressive political option, especially during the military dictatorship between 1973 and 1985.
He’ll face Luis Lacalle Pou (pictured above), a rising star in the National Party and the son of Luis Alberton Lacalle, who served as president from 1990 to 1995. Lacalle Pou surprisingly defeated the 2004 blanco presidential candidate, senator Jorge Larrañaga, in the party’s primaries.
Within minutes of the preliminary announcement of the presidential vote on Sunday, Lacalle Pou received the endorsement of the third-place colorado candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, the son of the late former military dictator Juan María Bordaberry, who was arrested in 2006 in relation to the assassination 30 years earlier of two parliamentarians. Bordaberry, who viscerally opposes Vázquez, was recorded earlier this week saying he was ready to ‘take a shit’ on Vázquez.
Lacalle Pou’s youthful appeal and his focus on reducing crime led many Uruguayans to believe he has the best shot in over a decade to defeat the Frente Amplio. He opposes Mujica’s humanitarian gesture to resettle six Guantánamo prisoners and Mujica’s landmark marijuana law (and polls show that the controversial law is much less popular than Mujica’s government).
Moreover, a united blanco–colorado effort, supported by the one-time Uruguayan elite, will make the runoff much tighter than the first round. Although Vázquez begins the second round as the slight favorite (and as close to an ‘incumbent’ as you’ll find in an Uruguayan presidential election), he’ll need to win votes from smaller candidates, such as the centrist Pablo Mientes and a handful of minor socialist and green candidates.
Vázquez can take some comfort in the fact that the Frente Amplio, however narrowly, retained the lead in both houses of the Asamblea General (General Assembly), including 15 of 31 seats in the upper house, the Cámara de Senadores (Chamber of Senators) and a razor-thin outright majority in the lower house, the Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies).
Starting in the 1990s, Vázquez increasing drew strength from an electorate increasingly disenfranchised with both major parties, and he won a landslide victory in the 2004 election, giving Frente Amplio control of both the Uruguayan presidency and the General Assembly.
As president, Vázquez did exactly the kind of things you’d expect of a left-leaning democrat — investments in health care, education and poverty reduction, even though Uruguay was already among the most developed countries in Latin America. He restructured Uruguay’s tax code, and generally pursued business-friendly policies while also enhancing social welfare commitments, which has become a common macroeconomic approach in neighboring Brazil and elsewhere across Latin America. He balanced the country’s longstanding friendly relations with the United States with greater outreach to socialist governments in Cuba and Venezuela known for their anti-US orientation.
But taken together, both Frente Amplio administrations have presided over strong economic growth for Uruguay, which recently overtook Chile to achieve South America’s highest GDP per capita:
If Vázquez, as expected, wins the November runoff and extends the Frente Amplio‘s stint in government to (at least) 15 years, it will be largely due to the satisfaction of Uruguay’s voters the economic stewardship that the leftists have provided in the last decade.
* The two unlucky presidents are Daniel Ortega in 1990 and Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic in 2004.