Uruguayans will have to wait several days for final confirmation of who will be the next president, after a tighter-than-expected contest triggered a more meticulous official count.
At present, the opposition holds a narrow lead in what would be the first shift to the right in Argentina's neighbour in15 years.
Luis Lacalle Pou of the conservative Partido Nacional had 48 percent of 2.4 million votes counted, against 46.8 percent for left-wing Frente Amplio candidate Daniel Martínez, according to preliminary results from Sunday’s run-off published by the Electoral Court.
Authorities will start an official count Tuesday that may not yield final results until November 29, the court’s president José Arocena told reporters. The winner will start his five-year term March 1, 2020.
Arocena said the court could not yet declare a winner because "there was never such a tight ballot."
'Prudence and patience'
Martínez got the most votes in October’s first round, topping Lacalle Pou 39 percent to 29 percent. But the challenger – the son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle and former senator Julia Pou – cobbled together the support of four other parties that were knocked out in that balloting.
Lacalle Pou, speaking past midnight, called on supporters to exercise “prudence and patience." He predicted he would emerge as the victor in the race to replace current President Tabaré Vázquez.
“The result is irreversible,” the centre-right politician, who ran unsuccessfully for the post in 2014, told a crowd of supporters as they chanted “President! President!”
“Today’s result confirms that the next government can’t swap one half of the country for the other. We have to unite society,“ he said at a rally outside his campaign headquarters.
Lacalle Pou then criticised Martínez’s decision to not concede. Pollsters had given Lacalle Pou a five to eight point lead over Martínez in the days prior to the vote.
Martínez, for his part, said he would wait for the results of the final count. He called on his supporters to avoid “any form of provocation or any form of confrontation“ while the Electoral Court does its job.
Uruguay has managed to avoid the social turmoil and recession that have engulfed other countries in the region in recent years. The economy hasn’t stopped growing since 2003, allowing the Frente Amplio to put money into social programmes, pensions and healthcare. Even so, the party lost control of Congress in general elections on October 27 as voters grew frustrated with rising unemployment, crime and other grievances.
During his campaign, Lacalle Pou criticised Vázquez's administration or a soft economy, reminding voters that the unemployment rate has risen to 9.2 percent and that more than 50,000 jobs have been lost in recent years. He also hammered at rising crime in the country of 3.4 million people and promised to rein in public spending to curb a rising deficit.
Lacalle Pou will probably win the presidency, but the Frente Amplio’s strong showing Sunday will force him to open a dialogue with the left-wing party in the opposition, said Eduardo Bottinelli, a director at pollster Factum.
The ruling coalition “ended up stronger than it was before in a certain sense. Put from a practical point of view, the main issue is its legislative weakness. It doesn’t have enough congressional weight” to decide legislation except in the case of bills requiring super majorities, Bottinelli said in an interview with Bloomberg.
Should the result hold it would also mark a growing trend in Latin America that’s seeing voters push for change – whether it be from the right or the left – to replace incumbents and try something new. It also comes at a time of increased volatility in the region with violent protests erupting in the Andes, from Colombia down to Chile.
Uruguay so far has escaped that turbulence. Sunday’s election was calm and festive, and Vázquez took note of that as he cast his ballot.
“All Uruguayans have to feel proud of being the people we are, respectful of law, respectful of the Constitution, respectful of the opposition,” he said.
The closer-than-expected result may have been driven by a large influx of Uruguayans living abroad who came home to vote in the run-off and Martínez’s revamped door-to-door campaign strategy.
The ex-mayor of Montevideo might have also captured moderate voters who were turned off by virulent attacks on the Frente Amplio by retired military officers and Lacalle Pou ally, ex-general Guido Manini Rios, days before the election, reviving memories of when the military called the shots in the South American nation.
Uruguayans were asked to choose Sunday between an ambitious reform agenda and continuity under a party that says its policies have slashed poverty and inequality. If Lacalle Pou’s slim lead holds, he would become the fourth Partido Nacional president in the last 100 years, while his running-mate Beatriz Argimón would be the country’s first elected female vice-president.
Lacalle Pou has made cutting the public sector deficit to protect Uruguay’s access to cheap credit a key part of a reform agenda that includes an overhaul of the pension and public education systems. The 46-year-old former senator has cobbled together a five-party coalition spanning the centre left to the hard right that would give his presidency comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress if he wins.
Still, if he squeaks through to win the presidency, he could start with a weaker mandate and would have to tread lightly with reforms to preserve social gains with nearly half of the country still supporting the Frente Amplio.
Support for Frente Amplio
Jenny Pribble, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond in the United States, said the narrowness of the actual vote underlined the popularity of the Frente Amplio.
“Their signature policy initiatives — public health expansion, the creation of a national care system, marriage equality and the legalization of abortion and cannabis — advanced citizen rights and have earned the party a strong following,” she said.
Pribble said the coalition's successful effort in getting out voters also underlined its popularity and pointed to potential problems for the opposition candidate.
“All of this suggests that even if Lacalle Pou squeaks out a victory, he will face strong opposition during his term in office,” she said.
Martínez, a 62-year-old engineer who was recently mayor of Montevideo and previously industry minister, reminded voters of his party’s record during campaigning. He says that when the Frente Amplio first came to power in 2005, one million people were living in poverty, almost one-third of the population. That percentage has plummeted to 8.1 percent.
A member of the Socialist Party, Martínez represents the more moderate and centre-left wing of the Frente Amplio, which is a coalition of social democrats, communists, Christian democrats and former guerrilla members.
While voting Sunday, Vázquez seemed open to his own party’s possible loss: “I believe we have to alternate, people, parties. It’s always good to have a fresh mind, with another outlook, another will and another desire to do things.”
Vázquez led the Frente Amplio to power in 2005, ending dominance by the Colorado and Nacional parties dating back to independence in 1828. The economy was healthy during his first term and that of his successor, José Mujica. But growth slowed in Vázquez’s second term, crime rose, an education reform flopped and vice-president Raúl Sendic was forced to resign in 2017 over corruption allegations.
Vázquez, a 79-year-old oncologist, announced in August that he had been diagnosed with cancer. His successor’s five-year term starts March 1.