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Uruguay and Peru - Political victories for two presidents
The political situations in the two countries are very different, and yet there are shared lessons that presidential opponents can take from the events in the past week.
In the past 72 hours, two presidents in South America obtained narrow political victories. In Uruguay, voters defeated a referendum that would have overturned the government’s signature 2020 omnibus legislation. In Peru, President Castillo survived his second impeachment attempt.
There is a large contrast between the two countries. Uruguay is a model for stability. Peru has had six impeachment attempts in the past four years plus one presidential resignation and numerous other disruptive corruption scandals.
Yet, in spite of the clear differences, there are at least three shared lessons that can be learned from both victories.
It’s hard to beat presidents when oppositions aren’t focused. Why should LaCalle Pou have his legislation revoked? Why should Castillo be impeached? Opponents of the two presidents provided numerous reasons for their opposition, but couldn’t clearly state their case in a single argument. Opponents saying “look at the mess” and pointing to a half dozen issues may play well in the media, but it doesn’t magically create the conditions necessary to win a political battle against a president.
This could be a good opportunity to note in a cliche way that opponents aren’t offering specific alternatives, only opposition to current policies. It’s lazy and true. But actually, the lack of focus is an even tougher criticism. On top of not offering alternatives, oppositions also aren’t offering clear reasons for their anti-government positions in the first place. It’s that lack of focus that likely led to their loss.
LaCalle Pou specifically played this to his advantage, focusing on the security agenda in the omnibus legislation. While many voters likely agreed with some of the Frente Amplio’s criticisms on the economic front, the security agenda is popular and voters did not want that revoked.
Oppositions aren’t popular. As incumbent presidents are doing poorly in terms of approval ratings and elections, across the continent, it seems like a great time for opposition politicians to strike. And yet, traditional opposition parties are also unpopular at the moment, limiting their options for checking presidential power.
Uruguay’s Frente Amplio deserves credit for organizing the signature drive that forced the referendum. Ultimately, even in the current anti-incumbent environment with high inflation, they weren’t popular enough and the government managed to narrowly win. Instead of strengthening the traditional opposition to LaCalle Pou, the loss may have pointed to the weakness of the left and opened the door for third party options to gain influence prior to the next elections.
The Peruvian Congress is so unpopular (around 17% approval in one recent poll) that many voters don’t want Castillo removed if it means Congress gets more power and leverage. The divisions within the electorate make it more difficult to build the coalitions in the Congress. In addition, removing Castillo simply places his vice president in charge until she too can be removed, something that could take months or years and which Congress may not see as beneficial to their interests. The politicians in Congress certainly remember the last time they organized the ousting of a president only to see Manuel Merino, the Congressional leader who was named interim president, ousted days later by protests.
Voters may narrowly support removing Castillo, but the lack of a clear popular alternative to the president and the potential for voter backlash makes it more difficult for the Congress to organize votes in favor of the removal.
When oppositions go at the top leader and miss, they give that president fresh openings. It’s easy to be a political opponent on a day to day basis criticizing the ruling party in the media, but there are only a few opportunities to really check a president in the ways that the Uruguayan and Peruvian oppositions attempted this past week. They both took their opportunities and missed.
Both presidents walk away from their most recent battles with a renewed mandate to push for their agenda. LaCalle Pou will now push a new legislative package through the Congress, claiming a voter mandate for his policies that may or may not be true. Even Castillo, with his minimal approval rating, now gets a few months of breathing space before the Congress dares try again to remove him (and they will).