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URUGUAY
Incoherence at the polls
Pablo Long
11/5/2009
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Voters support progressive candidate but fail to knock down impunity law.

Uruguayans went to the polls Oct. 25 to vote not only to elect a new president, and 129 members of the bicameral Congress, but to decide whether to maintain down a 23-year-old law that granted amnesty for dictatorship-era human rights crimes. But close to 53 percent of voters opted to maintain the law, which was passed at the end of the 1973-85 military dictatorship.

The vote on the impunity law, less than a week after Uruguay´s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, a measure that required more than 50 percent voter support in the plebiscite, baffled analysts.

International experts said the plebiscite question should not have been mixed in with the presidential ballot, because voters have not received sufficient information about the law, and because this wasn´t a political vote, but one of conscience.

Despite the vote on the impunity law, former guerrilla and ex-Agriculture Minister José Mujica, of the ruling Frente Amplio party, topped the vote with 48 percent of the 2.4 million ballots, falling short of the majority needed to avoid a second-round runoff, scheduled for Nov. 29. Mujica was trailed by Luis Alberto Lacalle, who governed Uruguay from 1990-95 for the right-wing White, or National Party, with 29 percent. The conservative Colorado Party came in third place with 17 percent. Two smaller parties — the Independent Party and the Popular Assembly — won just 0.7 percent between them.

The Frente Amplio maintained its majority in Congress that it won when President Tabaré Vázquez was elected in 2005, becoming Uruguay´s first progressive president. The party has 16 of 30 Senate seats and 50 of 99 seats in the lower chamber. If Mujica is elected in November, the party will have 17 upper-house seats since the vice president automatically becomes the Senate president.

Mujica won over the popular sectors of both Uruguay´s rural and urban popular sectors, something a progressive candidate has not been able to do here, where he capitalized on the social and economic improvements achieved during Vázquez´s government.

Lower unemployment and poverty
According to the National Statistics Agency, unemployment fell during Vázquez´s administration from 13.6 percent to 6.5 percent, its lowest rate in 50 years. Poverty has fallen from 31 percent to 19 percent, while extreme poverty is now just 1.5 percent from 5 percent when he took office.

Buying power also shot up 25 percent and inflation was low and steady.  Health care was made universal and education spending increased to 4.5 percent from 2.2 percent of the gross domestic product.

Voters rejected also a ballot question that would allow emigrants to vote from abroad. This plebiscite only saw 36 percent support.

The Frente Amplio´s presidential support confused political analysts since voters rejected the two referendum measures, particularly to knock down the amnesty law.

Political analyst Carmen Tornaría called it “incoherent.”

Frente Amplio supporters “are happy with the general election results but we are ashamed of the votes in the plebiscites, above all because of the vote on the impunity law,” said Mario Castro, a graphic artist who had gathered signatures to put the vote on the impunity law on the ballot. “A vote ´No´ is an insult to the victims, a clear sign of  ´I don´t care´ that so many showed, consciously or unconsciously, on Oct. 25.” 

No truth, no justice
“These elections and plebiscite were the best gift that could have been given to the dictators. The Supreme Court just ruled that the impunity law is unconstitutional,” said Castro, adding that the court just sentenced Gen. Gregorio Álvarez, the de facto president between 1981 and 1985, to 25 years in prison and ex-President Juan María Bordaberry, who ruled from 1972-76, to 20 years in prison for human rights crimes. “Uruguayans gave killers prizes.”

Human rights groups, such as the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said they would seek a statement from the United Nations and the Organization of American States because “that abhorrent law that was not annulled is incompatible with the international commitments Uruguay have and must respect.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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