The Growth of the Uruguayan Left

September 25, 2007

MONTEVIDEO—Hopes that the left-wing alliance between the the Frente Amplio and the Progressive Encounter (FA-EP) would win national elections were dashed this past November 28 when the coalition was defeated in second-round elections by a temporary alliance between Uruguay's traditional conservative parties, the Colorado and the National Parties. But the fact that the left's presidential candidate, Tabaré Vázquez, was the frontrunner in the first round of elections reflects the spectacular growth of the Uruguayan left in the past decade. As author Eduardo Galeano said, "In a sense, this defeat was a victory."

Vázquez won 40% in the first round of voting, making him the most-voted candidate, but Uruguayan law mandates a second round of voting between the top two candidates if no single candidate wins 50% of the vote plus one. That put Vázquez, a cancer specialist who served as mayor of Montevideo for two consecutive terms, in competition with Jorge Battle, of the Colorado Party. Vázquez took 44.1% of the vote to Battle's 51.6%.

The left may have not have won at the ballot box, but its strong showing has broken the right's hegemony of more than a century and a half. "It is no longer possible to govern Uruguay," said Vázquez of the left coalition, "without taking us into account."

This is more than a rhetorical statement. The FA-EP holds the largest bloc in Congress. The alliance holds 12 of 31 Senate seats and 40 of the 99 seats in the lower house. The Frente Amplio, also governs the capital—45% of the country's population—and is likely to increase its presence in other municipalities in local elections scheduled for this May.

The left's unprecedented gains are due in part to two factors. One is Tabaré Vázquez, who has pop-star charisma and was highly regarded as mayor of Montevideo. Vázquez, who comes from a family of socialists and has a trade union background, is seen as a political outsider, which favors him given the growing disenchantment with the ruling political class.

The other factor is the Frente Amplio itself. A coalition of various progressive and leftist groups founded in 1971, it is increasingly seen as an alternative to the neoliberal policies steadfastly supported by the Colorado and National Parties.

Despite twelve years of harsh military rule (1973-1985), the Frente maintained a steady electoral presence. The left coalition, which won 18% of the vote in 1971, held steady at 21% in the 1984 elections, the first of the democratic transition. It has maintained a stable electoral presence throughout the 1980s, receiving a third of the votes in Montevideo and a little less than 10% in the more conservative interior.

The same year the Berlin Wall fell, the Uruguayan left grew rapidly. This was largely linked to its steadfast opposition to the 1986 amnesty law granted by the Colorado Party, with the support of most of the National Party, to military personnel responsible for human rights violations. Public repudiation of the "law of impunity" was immediate. The Frente, along with human rights groups, labor unions, and dissident factions of the National Party, organized a broad movement which sought to put the law to a referendum, and which had a dramatic impact on Uruguay's entire political system. Even though the 1989 referendum was defeated—the vote against the law received only 43%—the movement changed the face of the country.

Indeed, support for the Frente has continued to grow since 1989. That year, with Tabaré Vázquez as its candidate, the Frente won the capital, Montevideo. Vázquez's succesful administration transformed him into a natural candidate for the presidency. He ran in 1994, receiving 30% of the national vote.

The left's staunch opposition to neoliberal reforms has also made it increasingly popular among the Uruguayan electorate. The impact of these policies on small businesses and rural farmers led to rising protests in rural Uruguay, contributing to a shift in the balance of political power in areas that had been the traditional electoral reserve of the right. The Progressive Encounter has been particularly successful in building support in the interior, increasing its vote from 9% in 1989 to 18% in 1994, and to 36% in the November elections. Nearly a million Uruguayans have made clear that they see the Frente Amplio-Progressive Encounter as an antineoliberal alliance capable of leading the country toward social justice and economic well-being for all.

Raúl Zibechi is a journalist with the Montevideo-based weekly, Brecha. He is author of Los arroyos cuando bajan: Los desafios del Zapatismo (Nordan, 1995).


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