The top leaders of Frente Amplio, Uruguay’s coalition of leftist parties, clashed this week, just as campaigning for Sunday’s legislative and presidential elections was coming to an end. President José Mujica and presidential candidate Tabaré Vázquez aired their differences in public, sparring over marijuana legislation and the creation of the economic team. But just as important as the issues on the table was the timing, and it was bad timing.
The crossfire follows reports from the country’s top pollsters saying that Frente Amplio is set to lose its majority in parliament for the first time in 10 years. They also predict that Vázquez will have to face a second round on November 30 and that he could lose to Frente Nacional (also known as Partido Blanco) candidate Luis Lacalle Pou, to whom Partido Colorado leader Pedro Bordaberry would divert his votes. Frente Amplio runs the risk of losing both the legislative and presidential elections to an alliance between the two parties that took turns running the country for 180 years.
The disagreement between Vázquez and Mujica started last week when a journalist from weekly magazine Búsqueda asked Vázquez whether pharmacies would sell marijuana for recreational use under his government. He answered: “It’s incredible but if the law allows it, so it will be. And I’ll tell you that we’ll be looking very closely at the results. There will be a close and strict evaluation of the impact this law has on society. We are going to analyze it carefully. And if, at any point, we see that it is not working, we will not hesitate one bit before making the necessary corrections.”
We are going to analyze marijuana sales in pharmacies carefully. If at any point we see they are not working, we will not hesitate in making corrections”
“During Mujica’s government, there were some rough patches in the handling of the economy and there were at times two economic teams, one at the Ministry of Economy and another in the Planning and Budget Office ... Would this also happen under your government?,” reporters also asked.
Vázquez replied: “There will definitely not be two economic teams. No one will have any doubt about who is in charge of the economy for those five years.”
Mujica responded this week, saying “that’s his problem. Let him take it up with parliament.”
He continued: “Vázquez is wrong. There weren’t two different economic teams in mine either. But the thing is we are open, we are free.”
The clash recalled events at the last presidential elections when Vázquez was leaving office (2005-2010) with a 75 percent approval rating. He suddenly found himself facing statements by then-presidential candidate Mujica saying Vázquez’s Socialist Party was interested in getting its members into public office. The then-president’s response was devastating: “[Mujica criticizes] everything and everyone, sometimes with a pontifical attitude in a philosophical manner where he ends up getting trapped in many expressions. Some of them are simply stupidities that I don’t believe in.”
On Sunday, José Mujica is running for a senate seat. Analysts close to Frente Amplio say his skills as a negotiator could prove useful in case the party loses its majority. Yet some prefer to defuse the threat of any potential defeat. Uruguayan historian Gerardo Caetano told Montevideo Portal that “we have to take the drama out of this idea that not having a legislative majority leads to an inability to govern. The country did not have parties that held legislative majorities for most of its history and yet there was plenty of room to govern.”
Translation: Dyane Jean François