Uruguayan Elections 2014: Mujica's farewell

As Brazilian elections continue to dominate the Latin American press, another presidential race is taking place over the border in Uruguay. With Jose Mujica unable to run for this term, he leaves behind a political landscape unearthed by his landmark reforms.
by: 
Yasin Mir

Jose Mujica, the incumbent President has been labelled as the ‘World’s Poorest President’, to which he responded in a humbling interview “I am frugal, not poor”.

The maverick President has surprised the international community on a number of occasions during his monumental leadership.

In an unprecedented move, Uruguay became the first nation to completely legalise marijuana. This move came a short time after he stood before the United Nations and denounced all frivolity and excessive capitalist consumption.

He lives by his word. The President donates 90% of his salary to charity, living on his small farm outside of Montevideo, with no bodyguards or workers. The 79 year old lives with his wife and three legged dog Manuela, revolutionising presidential conduct by rejecting any privileges afforded to him.

Critics began to question his cavalier attitude towards Presidential duties.

However, Uruguay has struck up an intriguing relationship with the United States in recent months. The United States Congress has recently abolished the requirement that Uruguayans must obtain visas to travel to American soil. The ruling will come into effect when the next government takes office in 2015.

In turn, Uruguay has agreed to take prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. This is a bilateral agreement that arguably sees Uruguay compromise more than their partners. The President claims he is “dismantling a human disgrace” in aiding the transfer of detainees.

The initiative to relieve the United States of Guantanamo Bay prisoners has been met with disarray from the electorate, who have always proven a tough crowd for Mujica during his tenure. 64% opposed the plan, which would grant detainees a refugee status.

Mujica has consistently battled a low approval rating. After securing a landslide victory in 2010, his popularity slumped to below 50% in 2012. Now, with constitutional limits preventing a successive term, the mantle of leadership will change hands.

After an upheaval of presidential etiquette where does Uruguay turn?

Since Spring, polls suggest the fate of this election will follow suit of the Brazilian presidential race, requiring a second ballot to allocate 50% of the vote.

On October 26th, Uruguayans will determine the ideological direction their nation will take. The front-runner is Tabare Vazquez, who has the backing of the incumbent Mujica. Vazquez led Uruguay between 2005 and 2010 and has consistently held a lead of over 10 percentage points over any of his nearest rivals.

The opposing party, Partido Nacional, must dig deep to claw back the growing distance between their rival.

Tabare Vasquez is seeking a second reign as Uruguayan President.

An opinion poll on September 10th gave Vazquez an 11 percent lead but, 15% of voters remain undecided. Vazquez has set out to regain votes that were lost from the middle class. Frente Amplio lost 5 percent of the middle class vote during the Mujica presidency.

In order to kick-start a potential surge in votes, leading opposition figure Luis Lacalle Pou sought to form a Presidential debate.

The Partido Nacional has opted for youth in their selection of Luis Lacalle Pou.

Lacalle Pou has been an outspoken critic of the Mujica presidency, panning ‘excessive’ spending and a failure to capitalise on a favourable economic climate in Uruguay.

According to the opposition parties, after ten years of governing, Frente Amplio has grown complacent in their fiscal policy and expenditure.

Luis Lacalle Pou has pledged to save 400 million dollars a year – simply through ‘responsible’ economic management. In response – during the first debate between four presidential candidates - Vazquez announced his intentions to reform Mercosur and allow trade with third world countries, as well as developing trade deals with the United States, signed by Mujica earlier this year.

Mercosur is under increasing pressure after Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner placed protectionist measures on imports, looking to protect her domestic economy after its second default in 13 years.

With 5 weeks remaining until votes are officially cast and no projected winner, Tabare Vazquez is by no means home and dry. Polls see his lead slimming as the weeks count down and with swing voters undecided, Lacalle Pou will force the initiative to break the ten year stronghold Frente Amplio has held on Uruguayan politics.

One thing is for sure – the legacy of Jose Mujica will remain intact for years to come. Whilst he has divided opinion amongst his own electorate, his free spirited, pragmatic perspective has captured the hearts of international onlookers.