October 23, 2019 / 1:07 PM / 2 months ago

Uruguay election: Will cooling growth tip laid-back Uruguay back to the right?

MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Uruguay will head to the polls on Sunday, with the right-leaning opposition looking to break the hold of the long-standing center-left ruling party, as voters fret about slowing economic growth.

FILE PHOTO: Presidential candidates from right to left: Ernesto Talvi, Edgardo Novick, Daniel Martinez, Pablo Mieres, Luis Lacalle Pou and Guido Manini Rios pose for a picture at the Expo Prado, a livestock and agricultural international exhibition, in Montevideo, Uruguay September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mariana Greif/File Photo

The electorate will vote on Oct. 27 in a regional “super Sunday,” with larger neighbor Argentina also holding its general election. The big choice for Uruguayans is whether to stick with the ruling Broad Front coalition that has been in power for over a decade or swerve towards the more conservative National Party.

Pollsters indicate the ruling party candidate is leading the way, but not by a large enough margin to avoid a second round head-to-head next month that could be close.

WHAT’S THE BEEF WITH URUGUAY?

The small South American country, home to around 3.5 million people, is one of the region’s most socially progressive and economically developed. Abortion is legal on request, it allows same-sex marriage and it was a pioneer in the legalization of marijuana.

Much of that was driven by the liberal coalition that has ruled since 2005. President Tabaré Vázquez took over in 2015 from Jose Mujica, a former guerrilla known for living frugally while he was in office.

But economic growth has slowed steadily from 7.8% in 2010 to 1.6% last year in the beef and soy exporter, and that has boosted the popularity of the conservative opposition, who put on a strong showing in a primary vote in June.

Mónica Rivero, a 49-year-old office worker in Montevideo, said she planned to vote for the National Party’s candidate Luis Lacalle Pou to improve a “terrible reality” in the country.

“We are excited and we have a lot of hope,” she said, adding that she wanted a more streamlined government and lower taxes.

Economist Juan Díaz, 42, also focused on the economy, but backed the ruling party’s candidate Daniel Martínez, who he said had run the city government in Montevideo smoothly as mayor.

WHAT WOULD A CONSERVATIVE WIN MEAN?

If the opposition wins, analysts say, that would be another retreat from Latin America’s so-called ‘pink tide,’ with a shift to the right leaving remaining leftist leaders in Bolivia and Venezuela ever more isolated.

Conservative candidate Lacalle Pou has voiced opposition to some policies, including a more permissive attitude towards marijuana, which has made Uruguay one of the front-runners globally in the budding legalized cannabis sector.

The economic impact should be more muted, but the National Party may seek fresh trade deals.

“In general terms, with international politics, the opposition’s approach is more commercial and economic-based,” said Eduardo Bottinelli, director of public opinion consultancy Factum.

If the Broad Front remain in power, they have pledged to deepen reforms, including raising taxes on people with higher incomes, boosting social inclusion and striking further trade pacts overseas.

WHO ARE THE CANDIDATES?

Former Montevideo mayor Martínez, 62, a socialist engineer and former union leader with support close to 40%, is the presidential front-runner, according to pollsters.

His main challenger is 45-year-old senator Lacalle Pou, the son of a former president, who is having his second tilt at the leadership. The National Party candidate has a voting intention of 25%-30%.

That level would indicate a run-off will be needed, and would likely also see the Broad Front lose its majority in Congress.

The election has nine other candidates, which has eroded some of the share of votes for the ruling party. The third- and fourth-placed candidates have said they would back whoever runs against Martinez in an eventual run-off ballot, a move that could help Lacalle in a second round.

WHAT ELSE IS ON VOTERS’ MINDS?

Rising crime levels and homicides have elevated security as a central issue in the campaign.

Alongside the main vote, Uruguayans will cast a ballot in a referendum on whether the country should introduce policies to toughen up on crime and give a bigger role to the military.

The referendum proposes the creation of a military guard for street patrols and night raids, the elimination of early release from prison for those convicted of certain crimes, and a rule that only the supreme court can overturn life-imprisonment sentences for serious crimes.

According to some opinion polls, the referendum is likely to win approval. Lacalle Pou, however, earlier this year said he would not vote in favor of it, saying he didn’t agree with some elements of the proposals.

Reporting by Fabian Werner; Writing by Nicolas Misculin and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O'Brien

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