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A Uruguayan Bolsonaro in October?

On June 30, political parties in Uruguay held primary elections to decide who will be their leading candidate at the October general elections. Español

Mauricio Vázquez Andrés del Río
16 July 2019
Uruguayan flag. Wikimedia Commons.

The contest within the Broad Front (FA), the leftist coalition that has been in office since 2005, did not produce any major surprises in Uruguay. The former mayor of Montevideo, engineer Daniel Martínez, got 42% of the votes, leading his competitors by a large margin. The campaign showed a high degree of unity within the Broad Front rank-and-file, and between the four candidates. Carolina Cosse, with the support of the Popular Participation Movement, Oscar Andrade (Communist Party), Mario Bergara (independent) and Daniel Martínez (Socialist) all stood under a single government program.

The balance that the primary left behind, however, was not so positive for the Broad Front: compared to the 2014 primary, 44,188 fewer votes were cast this time. These results, which are clearly below expectations, raise some concerns about the Broad Front’s electoral performance after 15 years in government. The Broad Front must now face up to multiple challenges like dealing with the erosion due to its uninterrupted three-terms in office, the renewal of its leading figures (Tabaré Vázquez, Pepe Mujica and Danilo Astori were not candidates at the primaries), the growth of the right, and of the conservative discourse and authoritarian neoliberalism throughout the Southern Cone.

The resurrection of the Colorado Party

The Colorado Party primary opposed experienced Julio María Sanguinetti (former two-term President of Uruguay) and economist-turned-politician Ernesto Talvi. The latter won by a large margin: 53.7% of votes; Sanguinetti got 32.8%, and José Amorín Batlle 13.3%.

This is the first time that Ernesto Talvi, a Chicago School economist, ventures into partisan politics with his Citizens group.

This is the first time that Ernesto Talvi, a Chicago School economist, ventures into partisan politics with his Citizens group. His debut, and Julio María Sanguinetti’s comeback, injected a considerable degree of dynamism into the primary, after many years of meager attendance at the polls. It should be remembered that the Colorado Party seemed doomed after the financial, economic and social crisis of 2002, the negative consequences of the neoliberal policies adopted during the 80s and 90s in the region as a whole, and the party’s poor economic management.

The Sartori factor and the strength of the National Party

The result of the National Party primary bodes well for the party’s performance at the October general elections. Luis Lacalle Pou is a lawyer and has been a member of Congress since 2000. He is the son of former President Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-1995) and the grandson of the historical nationalist leader Luis Alberto de Herrera. He won a clear victory with 53% of the votes. He managed to brush aside his main contender, businessman-turned-politician Juan Sartori who, despite being a total outsider, managed to come in second with 20% of the votes. The other contender, experienced nationalist leader Jorge Larrañaga, had to settle for 17% of the votes.

The National Party primary was, undoubtedly, the most heated. What looked, from the outset, like a campaign which was going to be centered on well-known figures within the party ranks, saw the emergence of an unexpected candidate.

If in Uruguay one had asked about Juan Sartori in early November 2018, 99.9% of the respondents would have answered that they had no idea who he was. However this changed dramatically in a matter of weeks. A strong campaign focusing on social media (WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram) and a strong presence in mainstream media allowed him to become a household name in the seemingly predictable political landscape of the country.

Presented as a young, successful businessman and an outsider from the local political system who has made his fortune abroad (where he has lived most of his life), Sartori arrived in Uruguay with his family days before the launching of his campaign as a presidential candidate for the National Party. As he himself declared, he had come to push for "a new way of doing politics", while sneaking into the fold of one of the most traditional and conservative political parties in the country.

There are several coincidences between the CA candidate and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Maybe the fact that Sartori has not managed to achieve his aim of leading the party shows that the Uruguayan political system keeps in place some filters which prevent outsider candidates with a light discourse and an undemocratic profile from reaching power.

An Uruguayan Bolsonaro?

Voters further to the Right found in Guido Manini Ríos, the leader of Open Council (CA), a candidate fitting their expectations. Although the primary of this new political party did not propose presidential candidates to its voters, Manini Ríos obtained 46.887 votes, far exceeding those cast in established political parties such as the Independent Party (center) and Popular Assembly (radical left). This has meant that Open Council can now present itself as the fourth political force in the Uruguayan political system.

Manini Ríos possesses a CV which demonstrates his experience as a public figure and he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Uruguayan Army by José Mujica in February 2015. In 2019, after strong disagreements with Tabaré Vázquez, he took early retirement as a result of being questioned on several counts, especially those related to court proceedings in a number of cases of crimes against humanity carried out during the military civic dictatorship.

There are several coincidences between the CA candidate and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond the obvious fact that they share a military past and that they are both former paratroopers, they also have in common a conservative stance in relation to the social agenda, a desire to return to Catholic-Christian-Conservative family values, and a penchant for anti-political-system messianic political preaching.

There are differences to be noted however. There is a considerable distance between Bolsonaro’s obscenities and Manini Ríos’s rhetoric. In fact, Uruguay’s experienced soldier-turned-politician has distanced himself from the Brazilian president by declaring to international media that "they compare me to Bolsonaro and Chávez because I am a new option that bothers both the left and the right." However, despite trying to project a different image from Bolsonaro’s, the fact remains that his speech and public gestures cater for an increasingly large right-wing audience.

With an eye on October

A right-wing Conservative wave is currently taking over most of the governments in the region. So, the forthcoming general elections in Uruguay will be closely observed. Will the Broad Front be able to continue its transformation process after 15 years in government? The traditional Colorado and National parties are making a comeback to the electoral contest with new figures and the Broad Front has to endure the erosion of power and face the challenge of renewing its leading figures.

Perhaps the most interesting primary was the Nationalist Party’s, with Sartori-the-outsider entering the scene. His figure embodied a sort of blank check of dubious origin, lacking any substantial content and precedent. Juan Sartori’s stamp could be compared to that of Argentine President Mauricio Macri, given his profile as a businessman and his CEOcratic speech. At the same time, he has also some points in common with Bolsonaro, especially his anti-political discourse and his dirty campaign tactics based on social media and the spread of fake news. Sartori is, however, a phenomenon by himself: he has managed to shake the predictable political scene of the country. He did not hit the mark this time, but he has vowed to keep being active in the local political arena.

In that sense, Uruguay has shown that its political system is still capable of keeping at bay figures and personalities who could cause deep harm to their country.

The October elections are going to be highly disputed. They will oppose an eroded Broad Front to the renewed traditional parties, which have been adapting their discourse to the current Conservative wave in the region.

Now is the time for building coalitions and designing strategies at the national level. In politics, four months are an eternity.

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