Uruguay’s second-round election held last November 24th caught observers by surprise. The vote, which according to pollsters was an easy win for conservative challenger Luis Lacalle Pou, quickly became too close to call. Daniel Martínez, who faced an uphill battle running on the platform of the incumbent center-left Broad Front coalition, outperformed initial forecasts. In the end, however, after five days of ballot counting, Martínez conceded defeat to Lacalle Pou, who received 50.8 percent of the vote.
Lacalle Pou’s victory marks the return of the National Party (PN) to the presidency after more than two decades as an opposition party. The last PN president was in fact Luis Alberto Lacalle, Lacalle Pou’s father, who held office from 1990 to 1995. Now, in the wake of a bitterly fought campaign, the president-elect faces two immediate political challenges: one emanating from the opposition and another stemming from within the ranks of his own coalition.
The first challenge comes from the soon-to-be-opposition Broad Front. Lacalle Pou’s startlingly slim victory over Martínez means that the president-elect’s mandate kicks-off weaker than expected. A wide vote margin strengthens incoming presidents, while a close one reflects division over the election. Lacalle Pou’s triumph by less than 40,000 votes embodies the latter. While the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) will undoubtedly enter a process of soul-searching in the aftermath of a defeat that ends 15 years of consecutive progressive governments, it remains a powerful opposition with broad popular support, an energetic militant base, and strong leadership from Martínez and other relevant figures.
If history is a predictor of presidential candidates in the South American country of 3.5 million, then Martínez, who will be 67 years old in the 2024 contest, becomes an immediate contender. After all, Uruguay’s democracy is known for its die-hard presidential candidates.
This year, Julio María Sanguinetti, a former president (1985-1990 and 1995-2000) from the conservative Partido Colorado, unsuccessfully sought his party’s presidential nomination. Following his term in office, Luis Alberto Lacalle competed for the presidency twice in 1999 and 2009. Tabaré Vázquez ran a total of four times for the presidency (1994, 1999, 2004 and 2014), and even president-elect Lacalle Pou was a presidential hopeful back in 2014.
Furthermore, the Broad Front will hold 42 percent and 43 percent of seats in the lower House and Senate, respectively. Although the coalition lost two senators and eight representatives, it remains the single largest political bloc in the country’s legislative General Assembly.
The second challenge that Lacalle Pou will face once in office concerns the unity of his own coalition, Compromiso por el País (A Commitment for the Country). The alliance is a loosely tied political group formed in the wake of the first-round vote held on October 27th. The Coalición Multicolor (Multicolor Coalition)—as Compromiso por el País is also known—is composed of five parties, including the president-elect’s National Party, Colorado Party, Independent Party, Party of the People, and Open Cabildo Party.
While the parties across the coalition share a broadly defined conservative ideology they still view each other as rivals. Lacalle Pou strategically named Ernesto Talvi, the Colorado Party’s presidential candidate, as a high-ranking cabinet member in charge of foreign affairs. The incoming president, however, will likely face more considerable difficulties from Guido Manini, Senator and former presidential candidate from Open Cabildo.
The success of Manini’s Open Cabildo party is perhaps the second biggest surprise from this election cycle. Manini received 11 percent of votes in the first-round election, placing Open Cabildo as the fourth political bloc in the General Assembly. Manini, an outspoken former army commander-in-chief who was removed from his post by outgoing president Vázquez earlier this year, recently came under scrutiny when he released a video calling on members of the armed forces to expel “Marxism” by not voting for the Broad Front.
The tone and content of Manini’s message are all-too-familiar to Uruguayans, who suffered from a repressive dictatorship from 1973 to 1985. Manini’s firebrand discourse is said to have backfired by bolstering Martínez at the polls. Uruguay’s Bolsonaro, as Manini is nicknamed, will now hold a decisive role in the incoming government. While Manini will not be a cabinet member, he is expected to retain considerable influence from his senate seat.
Lacalle Pou’s term is set to start on March 1st, 2020. His inauguration marks the end of one of Latin America’s most successful—if not most successful—progressive governments. The Broad Front leaves on a high note and sets the bar for the new president-elect. After all, it took five parties to defeat the Broad Front at the polls. Unless Lacalle Pou skillfully controls the firebrands within his ranks, it may take only one party to dissolve the incoming coalition’s momentum and future course in power.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter @lucasperello