Uruguay’s opposition has narrow lead in presidential vote

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Daniel Martinez,Luis Lacalle Pou

Luis Lacalle, presidential candidate for the National Party, addresses supporters at his headquarters in Montevideo, Uruguay, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. Uruguayans voted Sunday in a run off presidential election between Daniel Martinez of the Broad Front, and Luis Lacalle. With the runoff election to close to call neither candidate is conceding to the other. (AP Photo/Santiago Mazzarovich)

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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Uruguayans are stuck waiting for final results in a closer than expected presidential runoff election that has the candidate backed by a united opposition holding a razor-thin margin over the governing center-left bloc.

With all but a few thousand ballots counted by early Monday, Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party maintained a nearly 30,000-vote edge over Daniel Martínez of the governing Broad Front coalition out of nearly 2.3 million votes.

José Arocena, head of Uruguay’s Electoral Court, said it could not yet declare a winner because “there was never such a tight ballot.”

He added that it might be Thursday before final results were announced, leaving Uruguayans to wait to see if another electoral blow had been delivered to a left-leaning bloc in Latin America.

Lacalle Pou predicted he would emerge as the victor to replace current President Tabaré Vázquez of the Broad Front, which would end a 15-year run of left-of-center governments in Uruguay.

“The result is irreversible,” the center-right politician told a crowd of supporters who chanted, “President! President!”

Martínez declined to concede, saying would await the final results in the razor-thin contest.

Opinion polls before the election had pointed to a solid but not wide win by Lacalle Pou.

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 Broad Front.

“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 Front’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.

Uruguay so far has escaped the turbulent, sometimes partisan protests that have swept Chile, Bolivia and recently Colombia. 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.

Martínez got the most votes in October’s first round, topping Lacalle Pou 39% to 29%. But the challenger cobbled together the support of four other parties that were knocked out in that balloting.

Lacalle Pou, a 46-year-old lawyer and a former senator, is anything but an outsider. His father is former President Luis Alberto Lacalle and his mother was a senator.

During his campaign, he criticized the administration of current President Tabaré Vázquez for a soft economy, reminding voters that the unemployment rate has risen to 9.2% 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.

Martínez, a 62-year-old engineer who was recently mayor of Montevideo and previously industry minister, reminded voters of his party’s record. He says that when the Broad Front first came to power in 2005, 1 million people were living in poverty, almost one-third of the population. That percentage has plummeted to 8.1%.

A member of the Socialist Party, Martínez represents the more moderate and center-left wing of the Broad Front, which is a coalition of social democrats, communists, Christian democrats and former guerrilla members.

While voting, the current president 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 Broad Front to power in 2005, ending dominance by the Colorado and National 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.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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