ON MARCH 1, 1990, Uruguayans and representatives of many foreign governments witnessed the reaffirmation of Uruguay's revived democratic tradition: the transfer of power from one elected president to another. Having completed a full five-year term in office, Julio María Sanguinetti Cairolo (1985-90) of the liberal Colorado Party (Partido Colorado) transferred the presidential sash to Luis Alberto Lacalle de Herrera of the rival conservative National Party (Partido Nacional, usually referred to as the Blancos). Lacalle was elected to serve for the 1990-95 period as the country's fiftieth president.
An urbane lawyer, rancher, and senator, Lacalle was only the third National Party candidate ever to be elected president. After only five years as a National Party leader, he achieved what his legendary grandfather, Luis Alberto de Herrera, the National Party's dominant caudillo during the first half of the twentieth century, attained after a half-century of political battles: the defeat of the Colorados and the ascension of the Blancos to power. Technically, Lacalle became the first National Party president because Uruguay was formally ruled by a ninemember collegial executive (colegiado) when his party won its previous victories.
Uruguayan democracy had been reinstated five years earlier-- after the 1973-85 period of military rule--as a result of Sanguinetti's victory in the November 25, 1984, election and referendum. Those national polls were held in accordance with the Naval Club Pact of 1984, a political agreement between the armed forces and four political parties: the Colorado Party, the National Party, the Broad Front (Frente Amplio, a leftist alliance), and the Civic Union (Unión Cívica--UC). The military regime, however, blocked the proposed presidential candidacies of the National Party's Wilson Ferreira Aldunate and the Broad Front's Líber Seregni Mosquera. Running, in effect, unopposed, Sanguinetti won approximately 41 percent of the votes, followed by the National Party's 34 percent, the Broad Front's 21 percent, and the UC's 2.5 percent.
Sanguinetti was the first Uruguayan president to be elected, albeit in a semidemocratic election, after the period of repressive military rule. He had been a lawyer, journalist, representative, minister of education and culture, and minister of labor and social welfare. During his term of office, Sanguinetti consolidated Uruguay's multiparty democracy, restored the country's prestige and respect abroad, increased its export markets, and avoided financial disorder. He symbolized Uruguay's political opening by visiting the Soviet Union and China in 1989.
In what proved to be its most active electoral year, Uruguay held two national elections in 1989. The first was a referendum on the government's amnesty law for abuses committed by the military regime. The second, the November 26 poll--the first totally free presidential elections to be held in Uruguay since 1971--demonstrated the country's return to its democratic tradition of free and honest elections.
Although voting was compulsory in Uruguay, the turnout in the November 26, 1989, elections was nonetheless impressive: 88 percent of the electorate of 2.3 million people participated. The high turnout did not necessarily mean that Uruguayan voters were among the most politically sophisticated in the world, although Uruguayans usually discussed and debated political issues exhaustively at all levels of society. The high voter turnout in 1989 demonstrated, however--as it had in 1984 when 88.5 percent participated--that Uruguay was a very politicized country and that it had one of Latin America's longest democratic traditions.
Despite Sanguinetti's accomplishments, his party's historic and decisive defeat reflected widespread dissatisfaction with two years of economic stagnation. The elections also challenged Uruguay's traditional two-party system of the Colorado and National parties. For the first time, a third party, the Broad Front, reached important levels by winning the country's second most powerful post (after president of the republic): the mayorship of Montevideo, which had over 40 percent of the country's population and more than two-thirds of its economic activity. The new Marxist mayor, Tabaré Vázquez, immediately began pressing Lacalle for greater municipal autonomy. The prospects for the success of a "co-habitation arrangement," i.e., harmonious cooperation, however, were doubtful because Uruguayans continued to support a strong presidential system and because Lacalle was assertive of his executive powers. Thus, in addition to the challenges posed by a resurgent political left, labor unrest, and economic crisis, the Lacalle government faced the possibility of political clashes with the municipal government.
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