In a presidential contest that may have seemed like déjà vu, Uruguay’s elections on Sunday produced some unexpected headlines: former President Tabaré Vázquez earned nearly 48 percent of the vote—a full 17 points ahead of challenger Luis Lacalle Pou; Vázquez’ center-left Frente Amplio coalition (Broad Front–FA) has retained its parliamentary majority; and a plebiscite to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16— referred to during the campaign as la baja—was convincingly defeated.
Aside from the accurate prediction that no candidate would earn more than 50 percent of the vote—resulting in a November 30 runoff—these were not the results expected by Uruguayan pollsters, who have begun a period of self-criticism after pollster Ignacio Zuasnabar from Equipos Mori admitted that the old polling methods need to be refreshed using Facebook and cell phones. Nearing October 26, pollsters believed Lacalle Pou was closing the gap on Vázquez, and some even said that right-wing Partido Colorado (Red Party–PC) candidate Pedro Bordaberry would achieve about 17 percent of the vote. In the end, Bordaberry did not even earn 13 percent.
Meanwhile, Vázquez, who has already run for president three times, and Lacalle Pou of the center-right Partido Nacional (National Party–PN), the son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle, will return to the trenches for the final phase of their campaigns. Third-place candidate Bordaberry, the son of former president Juan María Bordaberry—whose government ushered in Uruguay’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship—has already voiced his support for Lacalle Pou.Yet despite the familiar cast of characters, the differences between Vázquez’s first successful presidential campaign in 2004 and the current presidential election could not be starker. Uruguay is not the same country it was a decade ago. When Vázquez became the first leftist president in Uruguayan history, the country was recovering from its worst-ever economic crisis, during which thousands of Uruguayans emigrated abroad to find new and better work, and one-third of Uruguayans lived below the poverty line.
Now, the FA has been in power for ten years. Uruguay has Latin America’s highest GDP per capita, the poverty rate has decreased to 11.5 percent, and President José Mujica—who is known for his humble and direct style of politics and who presided over the legalization of gay marriage, abortion and marijuana—has become somewhat of a progressive folk hero.
The FA has proven that a coalition of communists, socialists and former Tupamaro guerrillas can promote progressive social policies, but also achieve sustained economic growth by maintaining an open economy. Vice President Danilo Astori, who was finance minister under Vázquez, recently criticized Argentina for its protectionism and advocated collaboration with the pro-free trade Pacific Alliance—a far cry from the left-wing populism of Ecuador and Venezuela.
Education and security have meanwhile replaced the economy and jobs as the most important issues for Uruguayans in this election. In order to combat rising crime in Uruguay, both the PN and PC proposed la baja—or lowering the age at which criminal offenders are charged as adults—from 18 to 16, gathering more than 250,000 signatures needed to create a plebiscite.
In June 2011, 65 percent of Uruguayans supported lowering the age of criminal responsibility, but polls just before the election showed that support for la baja had dropped to 50 percent in favor, while 43 percent of Uruguayans opposed the change. Ultimately, the measure was defeated nationwide—with about 47 percent in favor and 53 percent opposed—although voters approved the plebiscite in 10 of Uruguay’s 19 departments, mostly in the more rural areas of the country.
Compared to security concerns, Mujica’s progressive legislative legacy has been discussed much less during this campaign, although Lacalle Pou has announced his opposition to abortion and LGBT marriage, in addition to recently stating that he would repeal parts of the marijuana law. Lacalle Pou had challenged Vázquez to a debate in September, but no such debate ever took place. Instead, Bordaberry, Lacalle Pou and candidates from other parties presented their platforms in an exposition without Vázquez.
Now that the FA has secured a parliamentary majority, Eduardo Bottinelli, director of polling company Factum, predicts an easy victory for Vázquez in the second round, while Luis Eduardo González of Cifra argues that nothing has been completely decided.
For now, it seems unlikely that Vázquez—one of the most popular Uruguayan political figures of all time, with an 80 percent approval rating at the end of his presidency—will lose to Lacalle Pou in the second round. But this election has proven that nothing is certain in Uruguayan politics.