Sunday’s presidential elections in Argentina and Uruguay revealed an anti-incumbent mood in the electorate. In Argentina, voters punished Mauricio Macri, the market-friendly president, who dramatically failed to live up to his promises of economic growth. Across the Río Uruguay, Daniel Martínez, from the incumbent center-left Broad Front coalition in power since 2004, won a plurality of votes but will face a strengthened opposition in the second-round election next November, which he might lose.
Regardless of the winners and losers, the peaceful elections in Argentina and Uruguay give democracy in Latin America a much-needed breath of fresh air as riots and accusations of voter fraud have shown its weaknesses in the region.
Mauricio Macri was elected president in 2015, following 12 years of populist governments led by Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015). While initially labeled as a long shot by pollsters, Macri—a successful businessman and then Chief of Government of Buenos Aires (2007-2015)—ran on a platform that criticized the economic flaws of Fernández’s populist policies.
Macri promised to regain growth by opening Argentina’s market to foreign creditors and, perhaps more importantly, end the double-digit inflation rate that took a toll on voters. With these promises in mind, Argentines voted for Macri, defeating Fernández’s Peronist successor, Daniel Scioli, in a runoff election with 51.3 percent of the vote.
Macri’s cash-strapped government faced the challenge of undoing a decade of spendthrift populism. Toward the beginning of his presidency, Macri’s market-oriented policies saw Argentina’s economy grow 4 percent and inflation drop sharply, but shortly after, changes to inflation targets, tax reforms that reduced taxes and lowered interest rates led the country to the economic crisis it currently finds itself. Macri turned to the International Monetary Fund on September 2018, which provided a $57 billion loan, the largest in its history, to fund his program. Foreign investment, however, failed to materialize as expected. From 2016 to 2018, the country’s economy contracted by 0.6 percent average, while this year’s real GDP growth is expected to fall 3.1 percent.
Yet, Macri’s most prominent policy failure was his inability to tackle inflation. Argentina currently has the second-highest inflation rate in the region, situated at 51.5 percent, falling only behind crisis-stricken Venezuela.
While voters bet on Macri in 2015, and then again in the legislative midterms of 2017, the crumbling state of the economy led to the resurgence of the Peronist alternative. In a surprising move, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made a political comeback by announcing that she was running as Alberto Fernández’s (no relation) vice-president. Fernández, a moderate Peronist who held a bumpy relationship with Fernández de Kirchner, quickly attracted voters fed up with Macri’s austerity policies.
In an attempt to stop the rapid loss of support, Macri tapped Miguel Ángel Pichetto, also a moderate Peronist, as his vice-presidential ticket. Despite his efforts, voters punished the Macri-Pichetto formula in this year’s PASO, or mandatory primaries, a good predictor of the general election). An embattled Macri barely achieved 40.4 percent of votes, falling considerably behind the Fernández-Fernández duo, which received 47.8 percent of votes.
The PASO sealed Macri’s fate. Unable to roll back the clock on his unsuccessful economic program, government sympathizers embraced for inevitable defeat. Sunday’s vote confirmed the results, with the Peronists returning to the Casa Rosada, having won 48.1 percent of the vote, and Macri landing far behind with 40.4 percent. In the end, Macri, once viewed as a symbol of hope in the battle against populism, will go down in history as a four-year break between Peronist governments.
In Uruguay, the incumbent Broad Front achieved a Pyrrhic victory. Although Daniel Martínez, a former senator (2010-2015) and mayor of Montevideo (2015-2019), received a plurality of votes in the first round, looking ahead, the combined vote share of the conservative opposition exceeds the majority needed to win in a run-off vote, scheduled for November 24. Now, Martínez faces an uphill battle against Luis Lacalle Pou, from the National Party, whose election could end 15 years of center-leftist governments.
Uruguayans turned their backs on the Broad Front. In the first-round votes of 2009 and 2014, then candidates José (“Pepe”) Mujica and Tabaré Vázquez both received 48 percent of the vote, which paved the wave for a comfortable victory in the presidential run-off. On Sunday, however, Martínez’s support dropped to 39.2 percent—the lowest vote share received by the leftist coalition since winning the executive office in 2004.
The natural erosion of support following three consecutive presidencies, a sluggish economy, a rise in homicides, and a strengthened opposition explain the fall in support for what has been Latin America’s—if not most successful—progressive government.
The wear and tear of three consecutive governments resulted in vices that arise when any party remains in power for too long. This outcome manifested in the scandals surrounding disgraced vice-president Raúl Sendic (2015-2017). Sendic, who resigned in the wake of allegations concerning the misappropriation of public funds and lying on his curriculum vitae, became a poster child for wrongdoings under the Broad Front.
A slow economy and a spike in homicides similarly explain the fall in support for the leftist coalition. Uruguay, a junior partner in Mercosur, has suffered from economic downturns in Argentina and Brazil. In 2017, both countries represented 20.1 percent of Uruguayan exports. The country is also heavily dependent on agricultural exports, which have fallen since the end of the commodity boom. From 2015 to 2018, Uruguay’s economy has grown at a sluggish 1.6 percent. This year’s real GDP growth is expected to barely achieve 0.4 percent.
Voters also rejected a dramatic increase in violence. In 2018, Uruguay had 382 homicides (or more than one per day), a record figure that constituted a 35 percent increase in comparison to 2017. Unsurprisingly, poor economic performance and growing violence have not fared well with voters.
A revitalized opposition, led by Luis Lacalle Pou, a senator from the conservative National Party and son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-1995), gained the most from the government’s failures. In this year’s primaries, Lacalle Pou received a strong mandate, falling 13,000 votes short from surpassing the combined vote share of all Broad Front candidates.
Now, Lacalle Pou, who earned a ticket to November’s run-off after receiving 28.6 percent of votes, faces the challenge of uniting the opposition, which includes Ernesto Talvi’s Partido Colorado and Guido Mannini, from the newly founded Cabildo Abierto, which surprisingly received 10.9 percent of votes.
Uruguay’s second-round poll promises to be a nail-biter. Although Martínez’s Broad Front will try last-minute efforts to convince voters, the wind points in the direction of change in favor of Lacalle Pou.
Good signs amid discontent
While the losers of Sunday’s elections had good reasons to frown, there are also motives to celebrate. Latin America is widely known for its caudillo politics, where incumbents rarely lose elections. Incumbents hold the upper hand because they control invaluable state resources. Until recently, Hipólito Mejía, from the Dominican Republic, was the only sitting president to lose a democratic election in the region. The results in Argentina, and to a lesser extent in Uruguay, reveal how elections have turned more competitive—even for incumbents.
Another reason to celebrate is that democracy made gains in a month were riots in Haiti, Ecuador, and Chile made international headlines. No less than 80 and 90 percent of voters cast their ballots in Argentina and Uruguay, respectively. An effectively enforced mandatory voting system, in which the state actively encourages participation, are crucial factors in determining the success of elections. In a region where malaise with democracy is spreading, and politicians are growingly detached from voters, it would be good to take a closer look at how Argentina and Uruguay manage their elections.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter @lucasperello