Uruguay’s elections: a lesson in fair play for a region in upheaval

Leftist Tabaré Vázquez, who won an absolute majority, calls in opposition to discuss plans

Francisco Peregil
The winner of Uruguay's presidential elections, Tabaré Vázquez, celebrates on Sunday.
The winner of Uruguay's presidential elections, Tabaré Vázquez, celebrates on Sunday.REUTERS

In Brazil, the corruption scandals that marked the recent presidential campaign are still raging. Meanwhile, in Argentina, the opposition has been asking for Vice-President Amado Boudou’s resignation for more than two years over a graft case, and Chief of Staff Jorge Capitanich used the term “coup plotter” to describe the judge investigating the accounts of a hotel owned by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Against this backdrop, Uruguay’s presidential elections last Sunday represent a remarkable display of republican maturity.

The victorious Tabaré Vázquez, 74, of the leftist Frente Amplio, appeared before a crowd of supporters on Sunday night with a message of unity.

Vázquez is the most-voted president in the last 70 years after winning 53.6% of the vote

“Celebrate, Uruguayans, celebrate. Let us celebrate the climate of peace, respect and republican sentiment on this day,” he called out. “This is the way we are in this nation, and this is a triumph for all Uruguayans.”

Vázquez won the run-off with 53.6 percent of the vote compared with rival Luis Lacalle Pou’s 41.1 percent. This represents the widest run-off victory since the current voting system was introduced in 1996, and makes Vázquez the most-voted president in the last 70 years.

Beyond the figures, Uruguay’s behavior on Sunday illustrated the values that have defined this democracy ever since it was proclaimed in 1986, no matter who is in charge: respect for the republic’s institutions and respect for the rules of the game.

The defeated candidate, who is head of the center-right National Party, took less than an hour after the polling stations closed down to congratulate Vázquez on his victory.

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“Results are there to be obeyed, respected and defended,” said Pou, 41, in media statements. “We are not of the opinion that the majorities are wrong; the majorities are in charge.”

It was the finishing touch to a campaign marked by respect and fair play, with only limited exceptions. It is true that Vázquez, the clear favorite from the beginning, did not bother to hold debates with his rivals. It is also true that in the last month, when the opinion surveys were highly favorable, he did not grant a single interview to either domestic or foreign media outlets.

But throughout, he kept up the same polite tone that he has been using ever since he got his start in politics as mayor of Montevideo in 1990 and as president of the country in 2004. And once his victory was confirmed, the first thing Vázquez did was call in the opposition.

“Starting now, everyone is invited to join in a dialogue that we hope will be unprejudiced yet loyal,” he told the media.

The outgoing president, José Mújica, will leave office on March 1 and begin a new life as a senator after making world headlines as a result of his simple, austere lifestyle.

Just as remarkable is the fact that in the last 10 years, there have been precious few cases of corruption among government officials. And neither has corruption been a leading issue during this presidential campaign. In fact, contenders were role models of fair play. And on the streets, supporters of rival parties shared jokes and water bottles.

Outgoing president José Mújica emerges from his trademark Beetle.
Outgoing president José Mújica emerges from his trademark Beetle.Natacha Pisarenko (AP)

Vázquez and his Frente Amplio may now enjoy an absolute majority, but the Frente is an entire universe unto itself and nobody makes any headway within it without dialogue and negotiation.

And dialogue is not easy inside a group made up of 27 different parties, of which seven dominate. Often the internal give and take becomes an obstacle to governance. Now all the cabinet posts are newly up for grabs, each of the 27 parties will want one of their own members to have one. But this is the way the Frente has worked for the last 43 years, and that is how it has managed an absolute majority in Congress for the third consecutive time.

Standing in front of Montevideo City Hall is a life-size replica of Michelangelo’s famous David statue. It was placed there in 1958 as a symbolic tribute to the Italian origin of Uruguay’s municipalities. But it could well stand as a tribute to Uruguayans themselves, a small group of 3.3 million people stuck between 40 million Argentineans and 200 million Brazilians, yet who still manage to attract the eyes of the region and the world.

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