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Uruguay primaries leave presidential elections wide open

Leftist Tabaré Vázquez and conservative Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou emerge as main candidates Vote is set to be dominated by security and education issues

Tabaré Vázquez votes in Sunday’s primaries.
Tabaré Vázquez votes in Sunday’s primaries.AFP

A charismatic veteran and a young, unexpected candidate have become the leading contenders to replace President José Mújica in Uruguayan elections next October.

Primaries held simultaneously on Sunday by the left-leaning Frente Amplio (FA) coalition and the right-wing Partido Nacional yielded the names of the presidential hopefuls in a campaign that is likely to be dominated by the issues of citizen security and education.

In a country where change comes slowly, the emergence of 40-year-old Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou as the conservative candidate to lead the nation constitutes a surprising political shift just five months ahead of the vote.

Meanwhile, leftist primaries produced the expected result, with former president Tabaré Vázquez, 74, receiving over 80 percent of the vote.

Tabaré Vázquez used to be very seductive, he had the style of an American religious preacher”

President Mujica, also of FA, was the first to vote at a polling station in Montevideo, where he showed up early Sunday morning in his blue Volkswagen Beetle followed by bodyguards and members of the press.

“I can’t wait to take off these tight shoes,” he joked with journalists in a reference to the few months he has left in office.

Just a few minutes later, former president Tabaré Vázquez cast his own ballot and spoke about the positive economic situation and the “human development” experienced recently by Uruguay.

Following an internal campaign lacking in specific issues, Vázquez made 10 proposals on Sunday that sounded like a summary of the pending issues that the Mujica administration will be leaving behind.

Vázquez promised to improve education, upgrade infrastructure and reduce taxes for the middle classes, among other things.

Luis Lacalle Pou ran an efficient campaign that focused on generational change

Luis Lacalle Pou, who is the son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle, obtained 53 percent of the vote from Partido Nacional after running an efficient campaign that focused on generational change and the modernization of the country. His message found fertile ground in the capital, where he obtained 70 percent support.

His victory represents a headache for the left, since Lacalle Pou has placed the stress on the issue of citizen security, where FA has a shaky track record. The conservative nominee favors bringing down the age limit for criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, and wants to put this idea to a national referendum coinciding with presidential elections on October 26.

Meanwhile, Pedro Bordaberry, head of the conservative Partido Colorado and son of former dictator Juan María Bordaberry, is also running on a platform of crime fighting. Although the party dominated Uruguayan politics for decades, in the last presidential elections it only obtained 12 percent of the vote.

Tabaré Vázquez, an oncologist, was the first leftist president of Uruguay since the country proclaimed its independence in 1825. During his term in office from 2005 to 2010, he undertook tax and health reform and pioneered anti-smoking legislation. He also struck down an abortion reform that decriminalized pregnancy terminations, bringing the country back to stricter legislation. So far, surveys show he has 43 percent support from voters, which would ensure a victory in October.

The conservative nominee favors bringing down the age limit for criminal responsibility

But the Partido Nacional has been catching up over the last few months, with 32 percent support.

Former president Julio María Sanguinetti, of the Partido Colorado, believes that the FA is preparing itself for defeat, but that the opposition is not quite ready for victory.

“This tendency is accentuated today because we have seen a very wishy-washy, gray campaign by Tabaré Vázquez,” he said. “And the opposition has improved its attitude. The presidential elections are wide open, nobody has a firm hold on them.”

Sanguinetti also noted significant differences between the Tabaré Vázquez of a decade ago and the candidate we see today.

“Back then he was very seductive, he had the style of an American religious preacher, striding across the stage with a persuasive voice and speaking with serenity. Today’s candidate is more tense and he has little patience for journalists’ questions.”