Sunday, October 26, 2014

VOXXI: Why Uruguay’s elections matter

"Why Uruguay's Elections Matter"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
October 23, 2014
Originally published:

On Sunday, October 26, Uruguay will have general elections and the (very) popular President Jose Mujica is constitutionally prohibited from running for a direct re-election. Therefore, the Uruguayan government in the post-Mujica era will have to address a variety of issues, ranging from internal security, the future of marijuana legalization and relations with neighboring Argentina.

Game over?

It seems that the Uruguayan population already knows the winner: Tabare Vazquez of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition and also a former president himself (2005-2010). An early October poll reports that 61 percent of 720-polled citizens believe that Vazquez will emerge victorious. Representative Luis Lacalle Pou of the Partido Nacional came in second with 23 percent, while Senator Pedro Bordaberry of the Partido Colorado came at a distant third place with barely 2 percent.
It is worth noting that the Frente Amplio hired the Equipos polling company to conduct the aforementioned poll. Nevertheless, in spite of a possible bias, previous polls carried out over the past year generally favor the former head of state, although Lacalle’s support has significantly improved. Other polls also put Vazquez first with around 40 percent, Lacalle with 28 percent and Bordaberry with a more expectant 11 percent.
According to Uruguay’s electoral laws, if no candidate gets a majority of the votes a runoff between the two top candidates will occur on November 30. A similar situation happened in late 2013 in Chile (when Michelle Bachelet returned to power), and is currently taking place in Brazil (which will also have a presidential runoff this Sunday).
It seems likely that Vazquez and Lacalle will be the chosen candidates to go for the runoff and, unless there is a major surprise, Vazquez will be re-elected.
Additionally, it is important to remember that Uruguay will also have congressional elections. The country’s General Assembly is constituted by two chambers: a Senate with 30 seats (plus the vice president) and a Representatives Chamber with 99 deputies. All seats will be up for grabs on Sunday.
According to the polling company Interconsult, the Frente Amplio has around 43-44 percent of support, while the Partido Nacional has between 33-34 percent and the Colorado Party has 14-15 percent. This means that the Frente Amplio is not expected to maintain control of either chamber. The likely presidential runoff and likely future composition of congress will force the Frente Amplio to form alliances with smaller parties to comfortably govern.

Promises, challenges and marijuana

The challenges that Uruguay’s future policymakers will face are well known as the population’s major concerns are internal security, quality of education, and inflation.
Apart from promising to fix the aforementioned issues, presidential candidates have made their standard campaign promises. For example, Lacalle promised in August that if elected, learning how to drive would become a requirement in schools’ curriculum. The goal is to decrease the number of motor vehicle accidents, which have become a problem in Uruguayan highways.
Finally, we must address the decision that placed Uruguay, and President Mujica in particular, in the international spotlight: marijuana legalization. The Frente Amplio’s platform for 2015-2020 briefly explains that a new Frente Amplio-led government will “evaluate the accomplishments of marijuana legalization,” and also establish, control and tax mechanisms.
On the other hand, the opposing Partido Nacional and Partido Colorado have similar opinions. Both parties have pledged that they will overturn Law 19.172, which legalized the production, distribution and sale of marijuana in the country. The language of the Colorado Party’s platform is interesting when it addresses marijuana legalization: it mentions (several times) that marijuana does not promote a healthy lifestyle and it goes against “sports values.”
In other words, for the Uruguayan marijuana experiment to continue, the incumbent party must win.


Finally, we must briefly discuss Montevideo’s foreign policy. Of particular interest will be the future relations between Uruguay and Argentina. In recent years, Montevideo and Buenos Aires have been at odds due to a controversial pulp mill that was constructed on the Uruguayan side of the River Uruguay, which forms an international border. Hence, it is no surprise that elections in Uruguay are regarded by Buenos Aires as an opportunity for a fresh start.
However, a “reset” of relations is debatable, at least while President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner remains in power in Argentina. Vazquez was no friend of Buenos Aires as it was under his presidency, during which the pulp mill was constructed. Moreover, even the challenger Lacalle is not Kirchner’s ideal candidate, as the Partido Nacional has historically been closer to peronismo than tokirchnerismo.
According to the polls, former President Vazquez looks like the likely winner in Uruguay’s upcoming elections. If the elections (including the run off) go as expected, we will have to see how Vazquez performs during his second presidential term. Addressing domestic problems like internal security are particularly pressing, but so are issues that have international ramifications, like progressive drug policies (namely marijuana legalization) and the future of Uruguay’s relations with Argentina.

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