Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

URUGUAY: Next President to Emerge from November Runoff

Diana Cariboni

MONTEVIDEO, Oct 26 2009 (IPS) - Uruguay’s Electoral Court announced Monday that the governing Broad Front (FA) candidate José Mujica took 48 percent of the vote in Sunday’s elections, which means he will face off with former conservative president Luis Alberto Lacalle of the National Party (PN) in a second round on Nov. 29.

Lacalle, who governed from 1990 to 1995, garnered 28.9 percent, while the candidate of the Colorado Party, Pedro Bordaberry, the son of former dictator Juan Bordaberry (1973-1976), won just over 16.9 percent. Independent Party candidate Pablo Mieres took 2.4 percent. Although voting is compulsory in Uruguay, just under 90 percent of voters cast ballots.

Analysts agree that the most likely outcome in November is that the next president will be Mujica, a blunt-talking former guerrilla leader who spent over 12 years in prison, mainly in solitary confinement, before and during the 1973-1985 dictatorship.

“Everything indicates that our political force will have a significant presence, and we haven’t ruled out the possibility of a parliamentary majority,” Mujica said in a press conference at the NH Columbia Hotel in the Old City, where the FA set up its campaign headquarters.

“We are extremely happy with this outcome, in which we took more votes than the two traditional parties together, indicating that we are headed towards victory,” his running-mate, former economy minister Danilo Astori, told journalists.

Senator Astori said November’s runoff will be a “referendum” on the FA’s vision for Uruguay and the achievements of the incumbent government of Tabaré Vázquez, given the lack of concrete policy proposals from the opposition forces.

In addition, according to projections based on the preliminary results of the elections, Uruguayans voted against repealing an amnesty law for members of the police and military accused of human rights violations during the 12-year military dictatorship, and against a measure that would have allowed Uruguayan citizens living abroad to vote in national elections.

The plebiscites on the amnesty law and voting abroad “were overshadowed” by the national elections, said Mujica, who added that he did not believe referendums or plebiscites should be held simultaneously with general elections.

Sunday’s elections were the third held under the electoral system ushered in by the 1996 constitutional reform, which separated municipal elections from the legislative and presidential votes and created a two-round electoral system in which the winning presidential candidate must take 50 percent plus one vote in the first round, or go to a runoff.

Researcher Juan Andrés Moraes said “the most positive component of the 1996 reform are the simultaneous primary elections in each party to select the presidential candidates,” which “strengthened the parties and their internal functioning.”

But the reform also created a few problems, such as a lengthier election campaign period, he told IPS.

It also purposely sought the election of a president with greater legitimacy than leaders elected by a simple majority,” said Moraes, an assistant professor at the Political Science Institute of the public University of the Republic.

But the problem, he said, is that while the president would win an absolute majority of the votes, he may not have a majority in parliament to govern with. And since both the legislature and the president are directly elected by voters, “there would be no way to resolve this for five years.”

Sunday’s elections were also the sixth general elections held since the end of the dictatorship.

“Uruguay’s democracy is one of the most solid in Latin America. This is the country with the largest proportion of citizens who say they are satisfied with democracy (in opinion polls) and support the political system,” said Moraes.

Since 1985, “the three main parties in the political system have had the opportunity to govern, without that posing a problem with respect to governability or political stability,” he added.

In Moraes’ view, the political parties “have undergone at least two very positive changes, if we compare them with what they were like in the decades prior to the 1973 break with democracy: they have more complex and solid organisational structures…and their programmes are also more solid and clearly identifiable to citizens.”

In the decades before the 1973 coup d’etat, “the parties (essentially the National and Colorado parties, as the FA was founded in 1971) were weak in terms of both of these aspects. Today they have progressed, and democracy has benefited from that process,” the analyst said.

“At a stretch, we could say that the political crisis that gradually led up to the 1973 coup was a crisis of the parties with respect to the two abovementioned aspects,” he said.

Women’s participation still weak

In the legislature that emerges from Sunday’s elections, women will hold at least nine seats out of a total of 99 in the Chamber of Deputies and 30 in the Senate, said political scientist Niki Johnson, coordinator of the “election monitoring from a gender perspective” project in the Political Science Institute.

So far, “we can only say for sure that there will be nine women lawmakers, while another 10 still have a chance, but that depends on exactly how many votes were won by each parliamentary list,” Johnson told IPS.

Although the makeup of the next legislature will not be announced until the end of next week, it would appear that “we could have 15 women – in other words, the same number as in the 2004 elections,” said Johnson. “That would be the maximum possible. The minimum, nine, would represent a major setback.”

“In few cases” did the parties stick to the spirit of a new quota law, which although it was approved in April, only applied to the June primaries, and will not go into effect until 2014, said the analyst.

“Uruguay earns strong points in terms of the international indicators on the quality of democracy, but political representation of women always weighs down its score,” she said.

“On that point, it ranks 16th out of 19 countries in Latin America, many of which do not have such a strong, deep-rooted democratic tradition as Uruguay,” said Johnson.

The quota law aimed at equitable gender participation in elected national and provincial bodies and in the leadership of political parties stipulates that one out of every three candidates nominated for these posts must be of a different sex than the other two.

The “election monitoring from a gender perspective” project headed by Johnson was created by an agreement between the Political Science Institute’s gender and politics unit and the local women’s group Cotidiano Mujer, with financing from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

“What is not clear is to what extent women’s efforts in defence of women’s rights is seen as a plus by the parties,” she said.

Johnson said that to judge by the fact that several women legislators with strong political backgrounds and a history of fighting for gender equality will be left out of the next Congress, “the activities of female lawmakers in defence of women’s rights are still invisible and are not valued by the parties.”

Because the slates of candidates are drawn up by party leaders, who are men, “when the eyes that are looking do not see the things that women do, it’s unlikely that they will be given the place to which they are entitled,” she said.

Furthermore, in the campaign, “no political force built a concrete platform targeting women voters, underscoring the achievements made or setting forth specific proposals, as did occur with regard to other groups, like workers, business or young people,” she said.

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