For the third election in a row, Uruguayan voters flooded into the streets Sunday night to celebrate the win of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA) party, a leftist coalition that has now extended its control of Uruguay’s parliament and presidential office to 15 years.
But as President-elect Tabaré Vázquez delivered his victory speech on a stage in downtown Montevideo before thousands of supporters holding giant flags, supporter Isabella Antonaccio had to admit that this was the smallest victory party that she’d seen in the past three elections.
“Ten years ago, the Frente Amplio’s win was a huge achievement,” she said Sunday night, celebrating despite being eight months pregnant. “It was so emotional, many people were crying.”
For a younger generation of Uruguayans, the Frente Amplio has dominated politics for as long as they could vote. The leftist party’s mix of financial and social policies strengthened the economy, reduced poverty, and won international applause with schemes like the world’s first-ever legal marijuana market.
But cracks are emerging. Vázquez, 74, and outgoing President José Mujica, age 79, are both unlikely to run again, meaning the party must groom a new leader over the next five years while also addressing education scores that are falling, petty crimes that are rising, and an economy that is slowing from 4.5 percent growth last year to 3.5 percent growth this year and on course for 2.5 percent in 2015, according to Gabriel Oddone of accounting and consultancy services firm CPA Ferrere. Scotiabank, in its November outlook, forecasts GDP growth of 3.1 percent this year followed by 2.9 percent in 2015.
“The government of Mujica lost an opportunity to accelerate the growth of the country and introduce the big reforms the country needs to continue to develop,” said Gabriel Oddone, an economist with financial advisory firm CPA Ferrere in Montevideo. “Vázquez was elected to introduce changes to maintain the good condition of the economy. This is the message the people put on the shoulders of Tabaré.”
Uruguay’s growing economy needs an education system that can supply skilled workers, said Oddone. But concerns have mounted in the wake of the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test released a year ago, which ranked Uruguayan students 55th out of 65 countries tested by the OECD worldwide—with falling scores in math, science, and reading. Other voters pointed to rising crime rates as a top concern. A think tank allied to the opposition Colorado Party reported that homicides are up about 18 percent over the past five years, and according to Uruguayan daily El País, the number of violent robberies rose 10 percent in the first half of this year from the same period in 2013.
Vázquez promised to address both crime and education, and also drew upon the strong popularity of outgoing President Mujica—who is constitutionally barred from running for a second consecutive term. Mujica increased social spending and legalized abortion rights, gay marriage, and a marijuana market, which broadened the party’s base and got him nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Those initiatives are why Frente Amplio volunteer Celestino Conde, 47, was at party headquarters in Montevideo all day on Sunday, taking phone calls from voters who needed assistance getting to the polling stations—and spending about $50 of his own gas money along the way.
“This government has put people at the center,” he said, holding a clay cup of mate tea that he’d been refilling throughout the day.
Still, 43.4 percent of the electorate expressed a desire for change by voting for opposition candidate Luis Lacalle Pou—who, at age 41, was seen by some as a fresh young face after a decade of governance by the septuagenarian leaders of the Frente Amplio. Unlike Vázquez or Mujica, Pou will likely be returning to the ticket in five years.
“Lacalle Pou is a person who could bring change,” said Diego DeFranco, 25, after casting his vote Sunday. “He’s not an old man; he could bring something new.”