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Deepening of progressivism or conservative break?
José Elosegui*
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Surveys indicate that the governing Frente Amplio and right-wing National Party would vie for the presidency in a second round.

On October 26 Uruguayans will vote for a new president and choose the members of the bicameral parliament (30 senators and 90 representatives). Opinion polls indicate that the governing Frente Amplio (FA), or Broad Front, will not win on the first round, so a runoff election on November 30 would be held, in which it will face the conservative National Party (PN).

FA member Tabaré Vázquez, who was president during 2005-2010 and was the first leftist leader in the political history of the country, and the young Luis Lacalle Pou, son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-95), are the two choices for president.

It’s also not for certain that the governing leftist party will win the second round. Even if it does triumph, it’s very possible that it will lose the majority in the national parliament.

At the same time as the first round, a referendum will be carried out to let the people decide if they want to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 years of age. The referendum also divides along political parties and their supporters — the PN and Colorado Party (PC), the so called traditional parties, versus the FA. The result of this referendum is also very uncertain.

The two consecutive administrations of the ruling party have made fundamental strides for the Uruguayan people in terms of human rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

In 2004, at the tail-end of the administration of right-wing, PC member Jorge Batlle (2000-2005), unemployment in Uruguay reached 13.1 percent, according to the National Statistics Institute. In 2009, at the end of Vázquez’s administration, the unemployment rate had decreased to 8.2 percent, and in June 2014, the rate was at 6.8 percent.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) stated in the report “Economic and Social Panorama of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States 2013”, published last January, that Uruguay maintains a good level of economic growth, and that the gross domestic product (GDP) grew 4.5 percent that year.

Meanwhile, in 2013 poverty affected 12.4 percent of the population and indigence affected 0.5 percent of the population. In 2002, poverty in the country had reached 39.4 percent. In this regard, the progress during the Vázquez administration and the current government of José Mujica has been continuous and profound.

These achievements have been crucial for the working class:  the creation of wage councils, employment formalization, the law that caps the working hours for rural works at eight, and increased rights for domestic workers, among others.

Mujica’s government in particular has taken some historic steps, including at the international level, which are of enormous importance for the struggle of some traditionally excluded groups and for the humanitarian agenda. Among these achievements are the depenalization of abortion, equal marriage, the legalization of marijuana and even the ongoing initiatives to bring into the country refugee Syrian children and prisoners from the American prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The rising opposition
According to the latest Factum consulting group poll, which was published on Sept. 8 on Factum’s website, the FA party received 42 percent of voter support, the PN received 32 percent and the PC received 15 percent of voter support. The other opposing parties do not exceed 5 percent all together. Null votes are at calculated at 2 percent and undecided votes at 4 percent.

The PC does not seem to be a strong contender in the elections, although it has shown growth, especially if one considers that in 2004 it had the worst outcome in its history, with little more than 10 percent of votes.

Pedro Bordaberry, the son of Juan María Bordaberry, who assumed the presidency in 1972 and who on June 27, 1973 led a coup d’etat that resulted in the military dictatorship which lasted until 1985, is the PC’s presidential candidate.

The discourse on insecurity and the need for a “firm hand against crime” is one of the important instruments of the traditional parties’ campaign, and it explains to an extent the movement to lower the minimum age for criminal responsibility. Criticisms of the education system, as well as the concern for both high dropout and grade repetition rates, especially in high school, are two other focus points for the conservative parties.

Lacalle Pou strives to present himself as a reformist, “positive” candidate who can “govern now and govern well,” as he says in his speeches. Political scientist Daniel Chasquetti states in an article published in Montevideo Portal on Sept.1 that Lacalle Pou’s greatest achievement is having interpreted early on that one part of the society’s mood has changed, and that it demands changes to the political leadership.

Chasquetti explains that the FA’s decade in government “changed the country (growth, reduction of poverty, new rights, etc),” and that the change “has been so significant” that now part of the electorate has higher expectations. In this regard, the slogan “we’re doing well” from the first part of Vázquez’s campaign does not seem sufficient.

According to Chasquetti’s analysis, there is “a sensitive state,” especially among the middle class, and “Lacalle Pou gets the credit for having understood this before anybody.”

“His strategy has been extremely efficient and we could characterize it as trying to not polarize the political debate. That is, Lacalle Pou supports — and promises to continue supporting — all of the popular policies of the government and only criticizes those that generate major distrust,” maintains Chasquetti. He also adds that the nationalist candidate presents some proposals that generate sympathy, such as ‘settlement zero’ — housing plans for low income citizens — and decreasing the minimum income tax for individuals, among others, and avoids discussing decisions that may generate conflict.

Some challenges for the future government
The winning candidate will have some important challenges in the short term. Addressing the education situation will be an urgent matter.

Beyond the subjective nature of the feeling of insecurity and the role of the media in propagating and helping deepen this feeling, stopping crime and especially robbery will be an important need for the future administration.

Another task will be to continue the implementation of the marijuana legalization. Additionally, the process of installing the Aratirí mine in the center of the country will have to be followed through. The mine is owned by the Indian company Zamin Ferrous and has generated great dissatisfaction amongst the population and enormous rejection protests.

The government’s party and Mujica himself have repeatedly stated that Uruguay had to open up to the flow of foreign capital in important sectors of the economy to face the serious poverty and indigence crisis. As the GDP rose, the area controlled by agribusiness increased, as well as the management of natural resources by transnational groups, and primary sectors gained more importance in the economy.

The monoculture of transgenic soy, eucalyptus and pine owned by Finnish and American companies, among others, add up to about 2 million hectares (5 million acres), in a country that has a bit more than 16 million hectares (39.5 million acres) dedicated to farming. There are already two cellulose mega-factories operating in Fray Bentos and Conchillas, located in the western departments of Río Negro and Colonia, respectively, and there is an ongoing project to build a third one.

The agribusiness model has brought some serious socio-environmental consequences: a brutal increase in the use of agrochemicals and constant fumigations in population centers and even schools, affecting people in different parts of the country, contamination of water sources, desertification and soil deterioration, loss of biodiversity, the transfer of land ownership to fewer and foreign owners, and migration away from rural areas, among others.
—Latinamerica Press


In risk a third consecutive term of governing leftist party. (Photo: Pablo Cardozo)
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