Throughout much of the 20th century, Uruguay's two main political parties, the centrist Colorado and National (Blanco) parties, alternated in power. However, a military regime assumed control following a coup in 1973, and remained in power until 1985. The legacies of twelve years of military rule included an economy in severe decline and lingering human rights issues. Democracy was re-installed in 1985 and successive governments have worked to consolidate Uruguay's democratic institutions and stabilise the economy.
The cleavage between Montevideo and the rural interior influenced party affiliation and political attitudes to a greater extent than did differences in social status and income. The coastal region often held the balance of power between Montevideo and the interior. The Colorado Party traditionally was associated with the city, labor unions, and secularist and "progressive" movements, whereas the National Party identified with the interior farming groups and the more religious and conservative groups.
The two traditional political parties, the National ("Blanco") and Colorado parties, were founded in the early 19th century, and are among the oldest political parties in the world. In the past they garnered about 90% of the vote but have seen their share decline over the past decades. At the same time the share of the Frente Amplio, a coalition of various left-of-center factions that became the largest political force in 1999, was on the rise. In October 2004 presidential elections, Tabare Vazquez ran against the Blanco candidate Jorge Larranaga, a former state governor and senator who got 34.3% of votes, and against the Colorado candidate, former Interior Minister Stirling who got 10.4%. President Vazquez won the elections in the first round, with 50.5% of ballots, and his party achieved parliamentary majority. The Frente Amplio has ruled Montevideo since 1990.
Uruguay's party leaders were sometimes viewed as forming a "political class." Many of the surnames of those active in politics in the 1980s would have been familiar to Uruguayans a century earlier. Blanco leaders were more likely than Colorados to have attended private secondary schools and to describe themselves as practicing Catholics, although this distinction was breaking down. With the exception of an apparent increase in the late 1960s, these politicians only rarely had business careers, apart from ranchers in the National Party. Rather, most made their living as lawyers and as public servants.
The leaders of Uruguay's leftist parties were drawn from a somewhat wider spectrum of backgrounds than the Colorados and Blancos. Among the leaders of the former were many white-collar workers, especially educators, and a few labor union leaders. The power of traditional political bosses, or caudillos, has resided in their ability to mobilize voters by means of patronage machines. This system of doling out favors, such as public-sector jobs and pensions, through local political clubs had, nevertheless, declined by 1990. Young voters were more motivated by ideology than their parents, which is one reason that the membership of Uruguay's leftist parties was growing, whereas that of the traditional National and Colorado parties was declining.
While all three major political organizations espoused a strong state role, each occupies its own political niche. Over twenty parties ranging from moderate socialists to extreme left-wing radical groups comprise the FA coalition. During the military dictatorship of 1973-85, the FA was banned from political activity, and many early party members were either killed, imprisoned or forced to live in exile. The Blancos are generally thought of as Uruguay's conservatives, with a center-right orientation and strong rural representation. Colorados traditionally supported a strong social safety net and state ownership of major industries, although the last three Colorado administrations opened the economy to foreign investment and privatized some state-controlled enterprises.
National Elections are held every five years on the last Sunday in October. At that time, the president and vice president, plus all members of both houses of Uruguay's bicameral General Assembly (a total of thirty senators and 99 deputies) are elected. In the interim, there is an election in June -- roughly equivalent to a one-day distillation of the U.S. primary process -- that determines the selection of presidential candidates from the Blanco and Colorado parties. The FA has traditionally been able to come to consensus on its presidential candidate via internal deliberations and without utilizing the primary election process.
Uruguay's October 2009 presidential and legislative elections represented a historic change for all three major national political parties in regards to their internal dynamics. Within the incumbent Frente Amplio (FA) coalition, the elections reinforced the predominance of leading presidential candidate Jose Mujica's Movement for Popular Participation (MPP), which achieved notable gains in Parliament in addition to its candidate's strong position in the presidential race. In the National Party (Blancos), October's legislative elections demonstrated the resurgence of Luis Alberto Lacalle's sector Unidad Nacional at the expense of running mate Jorge Larranaga's Alianza Nacional, while gains by Pedro Bordaberry's Vamos Uruguay faction ushered in a new era of leadership in the Colorado Party.
Shifts in the FA's internal power structure have favored more radical parties within the coalition, particularly the MPP, which was founded by former Tupamaro guerrillas (including Mujica) in 1985 and is currently the largest party within the Frente Amplio. The growing predominance of the MPP was indicated by Mujica's victory over former Finance Minister Danilo Astori in June's internal elections. (Astori was named Mujica's running mate shortly after the internal elections.) This advantage was further reinforced by October's parliamentary elections, in which Mujica's Espacio 609 list (which includes the MPP and is now led by Mujica's wife Senator Lucia Topolansky) demonstrated considerable gains within the coalition relative to previous contests.
Prior to 2009, parliamentary elections favored more moderate parties within the FA, including the Socialist Party, Astori's Asamblea Uruguay faction, and the Vertiente Artiguista, Alianza Progresista, and Nuevo Espacio factions. The 2004 elections gave the advantage to these moderate parties in both houses, as they claimed a three seat (10 seats to seven) margin over Espacio 609 plus the radical Communist and CAP-Libertad parties in the Senate and a four seat (28 to 24) advantage in the Congress of Deputies. This balance changed dramatically in October 2009, as these radical parties gained a 10 seat (30 to 20) lead in the Congress, while the two groups reached parity (eight to eight) in the Senate.
Similar to the Frente Amplio, the National Party also experienced internal power shifts that favored the faction of its presidential candidate, Luis Alberto Lacalle, while taking away support from its vice presidential candidate, Jorge Larranaga. This gain can be primarily attributed to the 2008 creation of Unidad Nacional, a Lacalle-led coalition that fused Lacalle's Herrerismo faction with Francisco Gallinal's Correntada Wilsonista faction.
The results of the 2009 elections demonstrated the crucial role Gallinal's support played in Lacalle's struggle for control over the party. Whereas Larranaga's Alianza Nacional group held a 6-3 advantage over Herrerismo in the Senate and a 23-6 margin over Herrerismo in the Congress after the 2004 elections, the 2009 elections gave Unidad Nacional a 5-4 advantage over Alianza Nacional in the Senate and a 19-10 lead in the Congress, with former Correntada Wilsonista legislators representing much of the difference.
Perhaps the most dramatic transformation occurred within the Colorado Party. Former Uruguayan presidents Julio Maria Sanguinetti and Jorge Batlle handed over the reins to Pedro Bordaberry, leading to a rejuvenation of the party in October's elections, with an 80 percent increase on its 2004 vote totals. This generational changing of the guard has been accompanied by a drastic shift in the Colorado Party's internal structure, as Bordaberry's Vamos Uruguay faction, despite having only been founded last year, has achieved dominance over the party. In October, Vamos Uruguay won 14 of 17 Colorado seats in Congress and 3 of the party's 5 Senate seats; the Colorados' remaining seats went to Jose Gerardo Amorin Batlle's Propuesta Batllista.
These shifts in internal party dynamics had an impact on the distribution of public support among the three parties, as reflected in the results of October's elections. While the FA and the National Party remained the two leading forces in Uruguayan politics, they are drifting from the center, as the FA turned leftward with the growth of the MPP, and the Blancos moved to the right with the resurgence of Lacalle and the decline of the more moderate Larranaga. The Colorado Party was able to exploit this polarized environment in October by occupying the vacuum in the center of the political spectrum and by presenting Bordaberry as a candidate of the future, uninterested in the decades-old political struggles between left and right as personified by Mujica and Lacalle.
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