As Latin America gears up for a spate of elections over the next few weeks, voters in Uruguay will be watched closely this weekend for confirmation that the region’s leftward drift of recent years is on the wane.
“My model is Lula – not Chávez,” José Mujica, Uruguay’s ruling leftwing party candidate, has said often during his campaign.
Placing himself in the mould of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s moderate leftist president, rather than of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s fiery, radical anti-US leader, should help him to win Sunday’s presidential run-off, polls suggest.
Such a move towards the political centre in countries such as Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil has led some analysts to rethink traditional party divisions.
“The big debate going on in Latin America is not so much between right and left, but between institutions and populism,” said Felipe Noguera, a Buenos Aires-based political analyst.
“Institutions will win in the long run. But how long that will take and how the battle is going, we don’t know.”
Mr Mujica, a former guerrilla during the 1960s, has sought to rebut opposition claims that his government would see a shift towards the radical socialism of President Chávez’s so-called Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.
Such an electoral ploy makes sense. Association with Mr Chávez has increasingly become a liability for Latin America’s presidential candidates.
The economies of Brazil and Venezuela provide starkly contrasting examples to the rest of the region. Brazil has raced out of recession and is expected to grow 3.5 per cent next year, according to the International Monetary Fund, while Venezuela’s economy has just slipped into recession and is plagued by power and water shortages.
Leading leftwing candidates in the last presidential elections in Peru and Mexico both saw popular support ebb away after allegations of overt Venezuelan support, notes Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think-tank.
“It’s very rare that a candidate associates himself with Chávez. Even Rafael Correa [president of Ecuador] did not associate himself explicitly,” he said.
In Chile, the campaign leading to the December 13 election is largely free of ideological politics.
“There seems to be an agreement that some things should be off the table when it comes to discussing policy issues,” said Patricio Novia, a Latin American specialist at New York University.
The list of sacrosanct subjects includes a range of orthodox economic and social policies, such as the need for a strong central bank, counter-cyclical fiscal policies and increased investment in education.
As such, a victory for the rightwing National Renewal party – as the majority of polls predict – would not usher in a marked change in policy direction.
“Chileans seem to be saying they want to keep the same policies, but have new people lead those policies,” said Mr Novia.
Just as the political left in Chile has favoured a move towards the centre since coming to power almost two decades ago, so the revitalised right is adopting a moderate course.
“Our objective is to maintain the network of social protection that has been constructed by the last governments, especially during the government of Michelle Bachelet,” Sebastián Piñera, the presidential frontrunner, told the Financial Times.
Chile’s political convergence is resulting in a blurring of lines between traditional right and leftwing issues. Mr Piñera’s campaign, for example, has surprised voters by featuring a television advertisement openly endorsing homosexual couples.
“This shows a level of tolerance that was unthinkable for the right a few years ago, but now it seems to be a non-issue for the right,” said Mr Novia.
One exception in the region is Bolivia. Evo Morales, the leftwing president, looks likely to secure another term in presidential elections on December 6.
Mr Morales has nationalised the country’s gas fields, rewritten the constitution and is a strong critic of the US. Opposition figures claim that his campaign has been part-funded by Mr Chávez, his close ally.
His vocal support for Mr Chávez’s policies has not dented his approval ratings, however. This stands at 52 per cent – well ahead of his nearest opponent, Manfred Reyes Villa, with 21 per cent.
The Bolivian president – a polarising figure domestically who is accused by the opposition of authoritarianism – has been aided by a resilient economy, which has drawn praise for his administration from the IMF.
Additional reporting by Naomi Mapstone in Lima
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