Uruguay chooses presidential contenders as left gains ground

Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou attends a meeting during the 63rd Summit of Heads of State of MERCOSUR and Associated States

By Lucinda Elliott

MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) -Uruguayans on Sunday chose the presidential contenders who will contest October elections, as opinion polls show the left-wing opposition edging ahead with voters concerned about public safety and rising inequality.

Early primary election results showed Yamandu Orsi, mayor of Uruguay's second-largest region, had won the main left-wing opposition's primary election, topping challenger Carolina Cosse, mayor of the capital Montevideo.

The main force within the incumbent center-right coalition government will be represented by Alvaro Delgado, Sunday's results showed.

Whoever wins in general elections scheduled for Oct. 27, or more likely in a November runoff, will need to bring down high homicide rates, improve the social safety net, balance trade with major partner China and keep on track an economy that is expected to grow nearly 4% this year.

Polls show Uruguayans cooling on the center-right coalition of President Luis Lacalle Pou, despite its successful steering of the farming economy of 3.4 million people through the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic setbacks following the war in Ukraine.

Lacalle Pou, 50, has struggled to back up a pledge to tackle drug crime which is hurting Uruguay's reputation as a beacon of stability in turbulent South America. A perceived weakness of the welfare state and rising corruption has also hurt his party.

That has seen the center-left Broad Front coalition, which ruled from 2004 to 2019, edge ahead of the main center-right parties, latest opinion polls showed.

"Today we have the formula (to win)," Orsi said during his victory speech with his rival Cosse by his side, indicating that she would be his running mate as the campaign got underway.

Uruguayan pollster Cifra predicted the Broad Front getting 47% support in May, some 15 points ahead of Lacalle Pou's National Party, the main force within the ruling coalition. The wider conservative bloc combined, though, would get around 43%.

Around 10% remain undecided suggesting that October's presidential election will be tight. Voter turnout on Sunday reached a historic low of 36%, and although primary elections are not mandatory, analysts warned public discontent was likely to remain high.

Lacalle Pou remains popular but his cabinet has been rocked by accusations of political espionage and corruption. He himself cannot run for immediate re-election.

Lacalle Pou narrowly won election in 2019 by forging a "multicolor coalition" including the centrist Colorado Party which his handpicked successor, Alvaro Delgado, who won the primary race on Sunday, plans to replicate.

Delgado has pitched himself as the continuity candidate, having served as cabinet chief to the president and had been widely expected to secure the National Party nomination.

Several presidential hopefuls for the smaller Colorado Party had said they would unite behind the National Party nominee to prevent the left from returning to power, including Andres Ojeda who secured the party nomination on Sunday.

Orsi's experience and public endorsement from former president José Mujica, an icon of the Latin American left, meant he was better placed to win the presidential nomination, analysts said.

"Uruguay today is an insecure and unequal country," Orsi told Reuters ahead of the primary vote, pledging "a modern left" that will reverse damaging rates of "poverty and destitution".

If no presidential candidate receives over 50% of the vote on Oct.27, a second round will be held on Nov. 19.

(Reporting by Lucinda Elliott; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Stephen Coates)