New wine into old wineskins in Uruguay?

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 3, 2014


The presidential election primaries held in Uruguay this past Sunday underscored strengths and weaknesses of the political system in one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. Though political parties remain strong, there is insufficient leadership renewal, both in individual politicians and family names.


Thirty years and six administrations after the restoration of democracy in 1984, Uruguayans will elect their next president from among a former president and two sons of former presidents.


The fact that the candidate of the ruling leftist Broad Front coalition, former President Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010) leads in polls ahead of the October’s first round vote indicates that most Uruguayans want to keep the same roadmap of socially oriented and moderate market-friendly policies.

However, the fact that a 74 year old former president is the ruling coalition’s candidate makes it evident that the most successful new left-wing party in recent Latin American history has a leadership renewal problem.


In turn, the fact that both Pedro Bordaberry, the Colorado Party candidate, and Luis Lacalle Pou, the National Party candidate, are sons of former presidents exemplifies insufficient political renewal in the opposition — although for those more immersed in Uruguayan politics, both Lacalle Pou and Bordaberry, despite their politically dynastic names, actually represent some fresh air of renewal in their respective parties.


In Uruguay’s intricate electoral system, presidential primaries are useful for more than just selecting a presidential candidate. Lists of legislative candidates are largely determined by the votes received by each of the many factions in the dominant Colorado, National and Broad Front party/coalitions. Thus, the primaries’ results matter even if the race for the presidential nomination was not very contested — as turned out to be the case in the Broad Front and the National Party.


Turnout in each party primary depended on the level of uncertainty associated with the race. Close to 30 percent of the 2.5 million eligible voters showed up at the polls. Not surprisingly, the National Party primary had the highest turnout (more than 300.000 voters), as the race between Lacalle Pou and challenger Jorge Larrañaga, a former presidential and vice-presidential candidate, ended up in favour of the former with 52.7 percent of the votes.


Turnout in the Broad Front primaries was 200,000 voters, but the winner, Tabaré Vazquez, is well ahead in polls ahead of October, with over 40 percent vote intentions.


Since Vázquez will probably be forced into a runoff, the real race in the coming months will be between Lacalle Pou and Bordaberry. Whoever ends up ahead will have a real chance of unseating the Broad Front if Vázquez gets less than 40 percent of the vote in the first round. Thus, though they are in a zero-sum game for second place, Bordaberry and Lacalle Pou have every incentive to jointly advocate in favour of alternation in power after 10 years of Broad Front rule.


Historically, the National Party has been to the right of the Colorados, but Lacalle Pou has shown signs that he wants to move his party toward more pragmatic and centrist positions. The son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-95), the 40-year-old Lacalle Pou offers a much needed fresh face (though certainly not a fresh last name) to Uruguayan politics. In turn, 54-year-old Pedro Bor-daberry is making his second attempt at the presidency. He ended up third in 2009 and threw his support behind Luis Alberto Lacalle who went on to lose against current president José Mujica.


Bordaberry is the son of Juan María Bordaberry (1972-1976), the democratically-elected president turned dictator who remains a controversial figure in Uruguay. Though he has proven democratic credentials, Pedro Bordaberry makes it easier for the ruling Broad Front coalition to transform the election into a contest over what party can claim higher moral ground. As the primary victims of human rights violations committed under the dictatorship, both Broad Front presidents — José Mujica and Tabaré Vázquez — continue to benefit from a sympathy vote among older Uruguayans.


The fact that the same last names show up again and again in Uruguayan politics, emulating García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, highlights the crucial role played by political parties in channelling demands for representation. Whereas social movements and street protests often make up for weak and unstructured party systems elsewhere in Latin America, Uruguayan parties offer an institutionalized mechanism for representative democracy to work.


It is no accident that Uruguay is also the Latin American country that has had the most success with direct democracy mechanisms in recent years. Forms of direct and participatory democracy can be developed to complement and supplement the shortcomings of representative democracy.

Yet, the fact that the standard-bearers of the institutionalized party system are overwhelmingly representing just a few families points to an uncompetitive and insufficiently meritocratic party recruitment system.


In the words of Barbara Bush, wife and mother of former US presidents, after Sunday’s primaries, Uruguayans might very well be thinking that “if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for office, that’s silly.”