The governments of Argentina and Brazil are waiting for the left-wing to attain power in Uruguay, which could happen in the first round of presidential voting Oct. 31, so they can unite around a common strategy in the Mercosur trade bloc.
Socialist leader TabarÃ© VÃ¡zquez has already said that the first trip he will make abroad if elected will be to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, the other full Mercosur (Southern Common Market) members.
The announcement, made by the candidate as he unveiled his foreign-policy platform, was taken by analysts as a clear signal that a VÃ¡zquez government will put a strong emphasis on fortifying Mercosur.
That would stand in sharp contrast to the focus of conservative President Jorge Batlle, who has put a priority on relations with the United States and strengthened his friendship with the family of President George W Bush, while pushing relations with neighbouring countries to the backburner -- or even undermining normally strong ties with Argentina and Brazil, which have been hurt by a number of diplomatic rows.
The governments of Uruguay's Mercosur partners, meanwhile, have openly reached out to this country's leftist coalition, which, according to the polls, is virtually assured a victory, either in the first round of the presidential elections, or in a November run- off.
Centre-left Argentine President NÃ©stor Kirchner and Brazilian President Luiz InÃ¡cio "Lula" da Silva, a former trade unionist, appeared with VÃ¡zquez on the balcony of the Montevideo city hall during the December 2003 Mercosur summit.
That strong public gesture was followed by meetings, in the heat of the Uruguayan campaign, between VÃ¡zquez -- the candidate of the leftist Encuentro Progresista/Frente Amplio/Nueva MayorÃa (EP/FA/NM) alliance (or "Broad Front") -- and Lula, Kirchner and Chile's moderate socialist president, Ricardo Lagos.
In addition, Buenos Aires Mayor AnÃbal Ibarra, a centre-left ally of Kirchner, and Marco Aurelio GarcÃa, Lula's main foreign policy adviser, took part in a left-wing rally in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, which is home to nearly one-half of the country's 3.4 million people and has been the left's only stronghold since 1990.
The overtures towards VÃ¡zquez by Kirchner and Lula contrasted with Batlle's cool relations with their governments -- which, the president complained, were "meddling" in internal affairs.
But Batlle himself had advocated and predicted a triumph by Carlos Menem (1989-1999) when the former Argentine president attempted to win the presidency for the third time, in 2003.
Menem pulled out of the race when it became clear he would lose the run-off with Kirchner, who like the former president belongs to the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, but is located towards the centre- left of the political spectrum.
Batlle has had repeated run-ins with Kirchner, criticising his human rights policy, which has included purges of the military brass and actions aimed at clarifying the human rights crimes committed by Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship.
The Uruguayan leader also upset Brazil when he suggested that Argentina and Uruguay re-create the "viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata", a large Spanish colonial territorial division, to achieve a "balance" in Mercosur -- an allusion to Brazil's great size and clout.
"The left's arrival to the government will signify a radical change from the current foreign policy of Batlle, which, although it did not break ties with Mercosur, did maintain a distance" by taking a go-it- alone attitude in relations with the United States and Mexico, international relations expert Alberto Methol FerrÃ© told IPS.
Those two countries, along with Canada, are members of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Most polls in Uruguay predict a first-round triumph for the leftist coalition, which was created in 1971 and comprises a broad mix of socialists, communists, social democrats, centre-left Christian democrats, former urban guerrillas and politicians who have abandoned the two traditional parties, the National and Colorado parties.
The Factum and Radar polling firms report that 52 percent of respondents will vote for the Broad Front on Oct. 31, while the Doxa and Ipsos firms put the proportion at 54 and 55 percent, respectively.
Only two polling companies, Cifra and Equipos Mori, say support for VÃ¡zquez stands at less than 50 percent.
If VÃ¡zquez fails to take the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win the elections outright this month, his rival in the Nov. 28 run-off will be Jorge LarraÃ±aga, the candidate of the centre-right National Party, whose poll ratings range between 30 and 35 percent.
All opinion polls predict the poorest showing ever by the Colorado Party, whose candidate Guillermo Stirling has just eight to 11 percent poll ratings.
Colorado, which has ruled Uruguay for most of its existence as an independent republic -- since 1830 -- also governed during three of the four presidential terms since the end of the 1973-1985 military dictatorship, twice under former president Julio MarÃa Sanguinetti and once under Batlle.
But Sanguinetti, Batlle and former president Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-1995) -- who lost the National Party's primaries to the much younger LarraÃ±aga -- are now paying the cost of the alliance formed by the two traditional parties in the 1990s to push through their neo-liberal economic policies over the opposition of the Broad Front -- policies that led to the financial and economic collapse of 2002, according to analysts consulted by IPS.
The neo-liberal economic doctrine of market-oriented policy measures, liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation and structural adjustments known as the "Washington Consensus" began to be applied throughout Latin America in the 1990s on the prescription of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the U.S. government.
"No one in the region escaped the neo-liberal wave" that was fuelled "by the collapse of the socialist bloc headed by the now-defunct Soviet Union," said Methol FerrÃ©.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a social democrat who governed Brazil from 1995 to 2003, largely toed the line, as did Uruguay's leaders and, especially, Menem in Argentina, considered the IMF and World Bank's star pupil.
But a series of financial crises that hit Mexico in 1994, southeast Asia in 1997, Russia in 1998, Brazil in 1999 and Argentina in 2001 led to a substantial political transformation in the two largest Mercosur partners, said the analyst.
The "Buenos Aires Consensus" signed by Kirchner and Lula a year ago appeared to sound the death toll for the neo-liberal agenda in the Mercosur trade bloc.
That document outlines an alternative common path that focuses on economic growth with social equality and defending the interests of South America.
The leftist Lula in Brazil, Latin America's giant, is thus at the head of a strategy of South American union, allied with Kirchner and left-leaning President Hugo ChÃ¡vez in Venezuela, who was recently strengthened by his smashing victory in a presidential recall referendum.
And in Uruguay, VÃ¡zquez has announced he will strengthen Uruguay's commitment and ties to Mercosur (created in 1991), above and beyond the periodic disputes triggered by the clash of national business interests, "micro-conflicts that will always exist, but can be overcome," said Methol FerrÃ©.
The future "ideological affinity" between the governments of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which will form a kind of "progressive international" complemented by Lagos in Chile and ChÃ¡vez, "will be very important" in consolidating Mercosur, said political scientist Adolfo GarcÃ©.
Both Chile and Venezuela are associate members of Mercosur.
Methol FerrÃ© said that in the Broad Front "there have always been pro-Mercosur sectors and leaders, but never such a unified position in favour of in-depth integration as we have seen since Lula reached the government in Brazil."
Analysts also point to the existence of "sister" parties in the centre-left coalition that has ruled Chile since 1990 and in Uruguay's Broad Front, like the socialists, social democrats and centre-left Christian democrats, which would further facilitate dialogue.
Uruguay's leftist alliance has points of contact with the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and even the ChÃ¡vez administration in Venezuela, according to GarcÃ©, co-author of the book 'The Progressive Era', which he wrote with fellow political scientist Jaime YaffÃ©.
For example, Uruguay's leftist coalition and ChÃ¡vez's government both stress "participatory democracy" based on grassroots organisations and civil society as a whole, according to GarcÃ©.
If VÃ¡zquez is elected, his government will launch an offensive against corruption and the "circuits of power" that have ruled for 20 years, purge the military of remnants of its dictatorial past, and take a proactive stance on human rights questions, as Kirchner has done since he became president of Argentina in May 2003, said GarcÃ©.
And like the Lula administration, the government will follow responsible and disciplined fiscal and debt policies while maintaining macroeconomic balance, he added.
Meanwhile, it will emphasise tackling poverty and achieving a more just distribution of wealth; R&D (research and development) in science and technology; and strengthening the role of the state in controlling the financial system and stimulating production, similar to what the Chilean government has done, GarcÃ© predicted.