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URUGUAY: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Kathryn B. Sanderson*

The atypicality of Uruguay as a South American nation in its social and political institutions has been noticed and commented on by almost every scholar writing about the country in the last half-century. Uruguay is a small nation with its three million citizens: the majority of which are of European descent, are economically better off than their neighbors in other countries, and are living in or around the urban area of Montevideo. A stable two-party system found in the government until the military coup of 1973 was the exception to the rule of the lack of democratic consolidation in Latin America, and Uruguay was hailed as an example of stability and of effective governance. The odd system of lemas and sublemas as levels of organization for the two main political parties, the Colorados and the Blancos, has been and still is an aspect of Uruguay's atypicality, and has helped to perpetuate the effective dominance of the parties. A high level of cooperation in government between the Colorados and the Blancos, sometimes through a peculiar plural executive structure, has allowed the co-participation of the two groups as well as the voicing of minority opinion. Until the military takeover of government in the 1970s, Uruguay was a counterexample of almost all of the stereotypical preconceptions held about South American nations. However, in 1973 the country showed its true character as a member of the community of unstable, vulnerable democracies.

The travail of Uruguayan democracy culminated in military takeover on June 27, 1973, resulting in more than a decade of repression and human rights violations. Economic frustration in the world economic slowdown, over-bureaucratization of the executive, social polarization in the increasingly economically divided society, and the failure of the political market to provide a solution to the nation's troubles all opened the door to the possibility of a forceful usurpation of power. The new military government ruled by constitutional decree, instating the two quasi-governmental organizations termed the "Council of the Nation" and the "Council of the State." Extreme human rights violations and repression of social and political institutions were common during the late 1970s, while the military made an effort to entrench their rule with the promotion of several new constitutions favorable to the non-civilian system of dominance. The citizens of Uruguay were not persuaded by these effort s, however, and in the mid-1980s a cooperative group of influential government officials and prominent political party members negotiated a return to a system resembling that outlined by the 1967 constitution (Area Handbook 1991).

A remarkable resilience versus the destructive effects on democracy of the military interlude was manifested by the Uruguayan political system during the reinstatement of democracy. Respect for the constitution and for the traditional parties helped to bring about new egalitarian policies for a Uruguayan welfare state in the context of democratic reconsolidation. Inevitably, there were changes in the leadership, factions, and vote base of the parties after their long absence, and the people began to exemplify a preference for moderation and a distaste for those who cooperated with the military. The valued concept of coparticipation seemed to persevere, although the two traditional parties were faced with the need to deal with many new leftist organizations that were sprouting up in the wake of military departure. Since the 1984 election, power has changed hands legitimately several times, and the country seems to have recovered from its temporary lapse of representative government.

The recent presidential elections of 2000 exemplify the coexistence of traditional relations with the need to deal with internationally-induced changes in the little country that is still formally known as the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. The election of José Batlle, the descendant of José Batlle y Ordonez who is considered one of the fathers of the country, manifests the continuance of a family dynasty. However, Batlle has acknowledged that he will need to deal with Uruguay's poor economic situation of unemployment and poverty with measures to promote austerity, effective production, and widespread education in an effort to confront the implications of globalization.

The current governmental structure conforms to that set forth in the 1967 constitution. The executive is currently concentrated in a presidential system as opposed to the plural colegiado system that has been adopted several times in this century. The president is directly elected to serve a five-year term, and is allowed a considerable amount of discretion in appointing the Council of Ministers, who exercise certain pre-established powers. The legislative branch is divided into the bicameral General Assembly, with a thirty-member Senate and a 99-member Chamber of Representatives. Both houses are elected using systems of proportional representation: the Senate considers the whole country as a district and has one national list of parties and candidates, while the Chamber of Representatives considers each of the nineteen administrative provinces to be districts and offers specific lists in each election. The judicial branch is independent, and is presided over by the Uruguayan Supreme Court of Justice, which manages the entire system after its appointment by the General Assembly (Area Handbook 1991).

Universal, mandatory suffrage encourages participation in the extremely complicated electoral system of Uruguay. Although electoral fraud is prevented by the Electoral Court, which monitors elections, the system includes so much complexity that it would be difficult for common citizens to determine the true validity of their selection procedures.

Uruguay's electoral processes are among the most complicated known. The unusual Uruguayan electoral system combines primaries and a general election all in one event. Primary and general elections combine proportional representation with a "double simultaneous vote." This system, as established by the Elections Law of 1925, allows each party's sublemas, or factions, to run rival lists of candidates--Each party is allowed to present three tickets, or single candidates, each representing a different sublema, for executive and legislative posts, and these factions do not need the party's approval for their candidates. A voter selects a faction [a sublema] and a list of candidates within that faction. The votes of all the factions are given to the party (lema) to which they belong, and the presidency goes to the candidate of the sublema that receives the most votes within the winning party--[Legislative] seats are allocated on the basis of each party's share of the total vote, but each party usually has various lists of candidates, among whom prior agreements have been made to unify or transfer votes (Area Handbook, 1991: 171).

This system, which was once useful in cementing the dominance of the two traditional parties, has tended to reinforce negative factionalism and programmatic incoherence in the current situation of increased pluralism in the political arena.

Continuity and Change since 1963

Original Parties from 1950-1962 still continuing to 2000:

The two continuing parties from the original ICPP project have been present in Uruguayan politics since 1836, when a hostile group of followers of a previous president attacked those of the new president. The color of the hatbands of each group gave the resulting political parties their names; the rebels wore red hatbands and their opponents wore white. Ever since then, these two parties have entrenched their dominance in the political system, commanding loyal followings among traditional Uruguayan families and consistent regional strongholds through traditionally accepted means of perpetuating power. The strength of the ideology of the Colorados and the Blancos is questionable, as their practices may seem personalist and their platforms appear to have switched places with one another. However, until the military takeover in 1973, these two parties were completely accepted as the only vehicles for creating and maintaining political power. "Both traditional parties maintained the structures typical of" modern parties, including conventions, general assemblies, party steering committees, and caucuses. The fundamental units of the factions of both parties were the neighborhood clubs, guided and controlled by professional politicians" (Area Handbook, 1991: 174). Throughout the history of the country and of the parties, which is chronologically one and the same, the Colorados and the Blancos coexisted relatively peacefully, sharing executive and legislative powers. Their dominance was questioned for the first time in 1989, when the Broad Front coalition achieved its first national victory.

381- The Colorado/Red Party or Partido Colorado--PC, The Colorado Party has been dominant in the twentieth century, only losing power to the Blancos a handful of times before the reinstatement of democracy in the mid 1980s. They have traditionally been identified with a more liberal ideology, and were associated with the beginnings of the Uruguayan welfare state under the Colorado President José Batlle y Ordonez. However, the switch in general ideological stance with the Blancos in the 1971 elections, coupled with the fact that both traditional parties are catch-all parties based more on loyalty and personalism than on politics, leads one to believe that their true ideology may not be able to be determined. The Colorados do continue to enjoy a regional stronghold in Montevideo, and its leading factions in the last twenty-five years have been centrist or rightist, catering to the needs of business. Although they suffered a loss in the 1989 elections to the Blancos nationally and to the Broad Front in Montevideo, the Colorados have maintained at least thirty percent of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives and do not appear to be declining significantly in power (Ameringer 1992, Area Handbook 1991).

382--The National/White Party--Partido Nacional/Blanco--PN. he Blanco Party has traditionally been the opposition party in Uruguayan government. Although they have won a handful of elections over the Colorados, the Blancos have benefited greatly from policies of shared political power in the executive and from coalition-forming in the legislature. The ideology of this second party, like that of the Colorados, is unclear. "Once considered to be the more conservative of the traditional parties, it moved to the Colorados‚ left in the late 1960s but returned to the center-right in the late 1980s" (Ameringer, 1992: 600). The Blancos have found their regional stronghold in the interior of the nation, but their multiclass coalition cuts across geographical and socioeconomic lines. After winning the pluralistic majority in the 1989 elections, the Blancos have returned power to the Colorados, but remain to be a strong force in the political system (Ameringer 1992, Area Handbook 1991).

New parties since 1962, continuing to 2000:

383--Broad Leftist Front Coalition or Frente Amplio--FA. Founded in 1971, the Broad Front has been given the distinction of being recognized by the government as an official lema. It has lasted through the long span of military dominance, during which it was outlawed by the government, which had some of the coalition's leaders imprisoned or exiled. Its original parties included members of the communist, socialist, Christian Democratic, and social democratic tendencies, but it has exemplified a tendency to move more towards the center since the mid-1980s when several of its members left to form the New Space. Claiming at least twenty percent of the votes in the 1984, 1989, 1994, and 1999 elections, the Broad Front has established itself as a major contender for legislative power. It seems to have either changed its name or regrouped under the new name of the Progressive Encounter Coalition since 1994; otherwise a new organization has emerged with the same member parties and the same vote base (an extremely unlikely occurrence) (Ameringer 1992, Area Handbo ok 1991).

384--New Sector/New Space or Nueva Espacio--NE. In 1989, three parties with social democratic tendencies, the PDC (the Christian Democratic Party), the PGP (The Party for People's Government), and the UC, joined forces within a movement that they called the Integration Movement to create a new electoral coalition, the New Space. It supported a presidential candidate in 1989, Batalla, and won nine percent of the legislative seats in the Chamber of Representatives. The coalition's vote has been slightly declining in the last ten years; they claimed only four percent of the seats in the recent 1999 elections (Ameringer 1992, Area Handbook 1991). 

Original Parties from 1950-1962 terminating before 2000: none

New parties since 1962, terminating before 2000:

385--Civic Union or Union Civica--UC. The UC was founded in 1912 as a small Catholic party. After merging and changing its name to the Christian Democratic Party in the mid-1960s, the Civic Union moved left and lost a great deal of its electoral base. The UC was re-founded in 1982 and won a small (2%) portion of the legislature. It experienced major internal conflicts during the 1980s, and after attempting to join the New Space coalition, its vote seems to have collapsed (Ameringer 1992).


 Ameringer, Charles D., ed. Political Parties of the Americas: 1980s to 1990s; Canada, Latin America, and the West Indies. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.

 Elections Around the World. "Elections in Uruguay." July 17, 2000.

Fernandez, Uncas. "New President in Uruguay Prepared with Ambitious Agenda." Agence France Presse. March 1, 2000.

"Jorge Batlle Assumes Uruguayan Presidency." Xinhua General News Service. March 1, 2000.

 Political Database of the Americas. "Uruguay: Political Parties." July 17, 2000. 

Political Database of the Americas. "National Legislative Elections." July 17, 2000.

Robinson, Eugene. "Opposition National Party is Winner in Uruguayan Presidential Election; Nation Bound by Argentina, Brazil seeks to shake of Malaise." The Washington Post. Nov. 27, 1989.

Weil, etc. Area Handbook for Uruguay. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress: 1968, 1973, and 1991.


*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-Augt, 2000