Direct Democracy in Uruguay

Uruguay is the only Latin American country with a long tradition of efficiently run direct democracy, and as such it is a special case. It is one of the few countries that followed the Swiss model of direct democracy rather than the Italian or French one. Accordingly it implemented the following forms of procedure: citizens’ initiative with authorities’ counter-proposal, obligatory referendum, popular referendum and an authorities’ minority plebiscite.

Popular Vote Procedures in Uruguay

The emergence of direct democracy can be caused by various processes, short- and long-term, normative and other; it always happens in the context of particular power struggles. In Uruguay the development of direct democracy went hand in hand with processes of a concentration of executive power. For the adoption of the Swiss model the influence of president José Batlle y Ordóñez was decisive. The constitution of 1917 was ratified by popular vote. However, it was only in the constitution of 1934 that direct democracy (obligatory referendum, popular initiative) was introduced, which was then revised in 1942 and expanded in 1967. But after 1967 there followed long years of economic crisis and social unrest that led to a military dictatorship (1973 –1985), and only afterwards was the expanded direct democracy put into practice. Between 1985 and 2016 direct-democratic procedures were used 18 times: there were 7 referendums (PCR), 6 popular initiatives (PCI+), 2 obligatory referendums (LOR) and 3 authorities’ minority plebiscites (MTP).

Comparing Switzerland and Uruguay we can observe both similarities and differences. In Uruguay, direct democracy was introduced from above in a strongly unitary and centralised state; in Switzerland, the same happened in a strongly decentralised and federal state and from below. Although both countries use popular initiatives and referendums in a regular way, the legal design of these instruments differs considerably. In Switzerland 2% (1%) of the electorate can initiate a popular initiative (popular referendum), whereas in Uruguay 10% (25%) of the electorate are needed. In practice this means that the tools of direct democracy in Uruguay are made only for powerful actors, whereas in Switzerland weak actors can also use them. This is one of the reasons why direct democracy is used much more in Switzerland than in Uruguay.

There are also similarities between the two countries. The political culture in both countries is characterised by a strong tendency towards political compromise rather than confrontation. In both countries the tools of direct democracy form a workable whole. Direct democracy dynamises politics, enhances political participation from below and brings the citizens and elites closer to each other. In both countries direct democracy is well accepted from left to right and there are no significant forces willing and able to work for its abolition.

Direct Democracy in Practice

In 1980 the then military regime lost a plebiscite for a new and authoritarian constitution. This surprising result showed that plebiscites are not completely controllable. It marked the beginning of the Uruguayan return to democracy, as legitimacy and power relationships began to change.

After the restart of democracy with a new government in 1985, direct democracy emerged as an important oppositional player in Uruguayan politics. It started with a referendum and heated debates against an amnesty law (Law 15.848, also called the Expiry Act) giving immunity to police and military officials for the crimes committed under the dictatorship. In this transitional phase, the referendum was rejected, partly for fear of the military and to avoid unrest.

Between 1990 and 2005 the Expiry Act served governments to maintain their policy of oblivion, impeding unrestricted accountability for the crimes committed under the dictatorship and suppressing demands for truth and justice. This changed after the victory of the Frente Amplio under Tabaré Vázquez, although the amnesty law remained in force. The idea of using a popular initiative for overturning this law came from within the Frente Amplio in 2006; however, significant sectors of the Frente Amplio did not support the idea and neither did President Vázquez. In spite of that, the popular initiative was launched in September 2007 and the necessary signatures collected and handed in to the authorities on 27 April 2009. On 14 June 2009 the Electoral Court confirmed that the popular vote on the annulment of Articles 1-4 of the Law 15.848 would be held together with the national elections on 25 October 2009.

While Uruguay has been recognised worldwide as a leader for legalising same-sex marriage and abortion as well as other progressive social reforms, it has been internationally criticised for its conservative stance on justice for the dictatorships’ crimes.
Source: Francesca Lessa 2015

A majority of Uruguayan voters had decided twice “to turn the page” before seeking truth and doing justice to the victims of Uruguay’s dictatorship. But the struggle against the culture of impunity continued. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that the Expiry Act was incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, and therefore lacked legal effect. This decision opened controversial questions about the relationship between democracy and the protection of human rights (see Gargarella 2015). According to article 4 of the Expiry Law, there was still the possibility to prosecute certain violations of human rights. President Mujica authorized the Judiciary to reopen eighty human rights cases. In October 2011 the Expiry Law was de facto repealed.

Despite official institutional efforts to suppress the past, the memory of those who were suffering under the effects of dictatorship could not be silenced. Waves of memory, created by unmourned experiences, became more powerful, pushing into the public realm, trying to break the locks on the door to justice and reconciliation. Yet the resistance against “truth and justice” within sectors of the Judiciary and the military continues to this day. In 2015 president Tabaré Vázquez formed a Working Group for Truth and Justice whose task it is to investigate the crimes against humanity and other human-rights violations committed by the state through illegal actions from 1968 to 1973 and through state terrorism from 1973 to 1985. The hope is to overcome the culture of impunity, that the work done will make possible a public reading of the page of the past so that it can finally be turned.

Active memory is essential for the construction of a society that recognizes its past and can turn the page of those tragic hours, after having read it once and a thousand times.” (Michelini March 29, 2016)

The first successful referendum in Uruguay against a far-reaching privatisation law was well noticed worldwide. It was one of the first democratic responses against a free-market economic policy that was perceived as detrimental to the interests and welfare of most of the people. Five articles of the Law No. 16.211 providing for the sale of public companies were abrogated by an overwhelming majority of 71.6% of the valid votes (55.0% of the eligible voters).

Later successful popular votes appear like follow-ups to the referendum in 1992. In 2003, the referendum against ending the monopoly of the state-owned ANCAP company (import, export, and refinement of oil) was accepted. In 2004, the popular initiative for a constitutional reform that aimed to include drinkable water as a basic human right and to maintain all the resources of water extraction, production, and commercialisation in the hands of the state won a comfortable majority. All three referendums can be seen as struggles in defense of the welfare of the ordinary people and against the privatisation of public services, state industries and resources. They also show that direct democracy provides Uruguayan people with some instruments for interfering in processes of globalisation in their country, which has effects also in other parts of Latin America and beyond.

Popular Votes in Uruguay 1985-2016

Procedure Date Issue Result
PCR 16.04.1989 Abrogation of amnesty law for members of the military and police officers Rejected
PCI+ 26.11.1989 Constitutional reform, adjustment of pensions to inflation Approved
PCR 13.12.1992 Partial withdrawal of the privatization law that would partially privatize the state telephone company Approved
LOR 18.08.1994 Constitutional reforms to separate in the ballots national and municipal elections Rejected
PCI+ 27.11.1994 Constitutional reform to stop “hidden cuts” in pensions Approved
PCI+ 27.11.1994 Constitutional reform, assign 27% of the budget to education Rejected
LOR 08.12.1996 Constitutional reform to modify the electoral system Approved
PCR 17.06.1998 Opposing the Law of Energy Framework Rejected
PCR 20.09.1998 Time available to workers to make claims against employers Rejected
MTP 31.10.1999 Constitutional reform that limits executives of public services in running for office Rejected
MTP 31.10.1999 Constitutional reform, financial autonomy for Courts Rejected
PCR 18.02.2001 Repeal of 13 articles of Law 17.243 Rejected
PCR 05.08.2002 Repeal of Articles 612 & 613 of Law 17.296 Approved (no vote)
PCR 07.12.2003 Repeal of Law 17.448 Approved
PCI+ 31.10.2004 Constitutional reform, access to clean water recognized as a basic human right Approved
PCI+ 25.10.2009 Repeal of Articles 1-4 of the Expiry Act (Law 15.848) Rejected
MTP 25.10.2009 Constitutional reform, introduction of postal voting for Uruguayans living abroad Rejected
PCI+ 26.10.2014 Constitutional reform to lower the minimum age for criminal responsibility Rejected
LOR = Obligatory Referendum, MTP = Authorities’ Minority Plebiscite,
PCI = Citizens’ Initiative, PCR = Citizen-initiated Referendum


Altman, David. 2011. Direct Democracy Worldwide. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fried Amilivia, Gabriela. 2016. State terrorism and the politics of memory in Latin America.

Fried Amilivia, Gabriela. 2016. Sealing and Unsealing Uruguays Transitional Politics of Oblivion: Waves of Memory and the Road to Justice, 1985-2015. In: Latin American Perspectives (2016) 43 (6): 103-123.

Gargarella, Roberto. 2015. Democracy and Rights in Gelman v. Uruguay, 109 AJIL Unbound 115 (2015).

Lessa, Francesca. 2015. Justice at a crossroads in Uruguay. Al Jazeera 6 March, 2015

Lessa, Francesca and Le Goff, Pierre-Louis. 2013. Breaking the Wall of Impunity in Uruguay. In: The Argentina Independent. May 6, 2013

Mallinder, Louise. 2009. Uruguay’s Evolving Experience of Amnesty and Civil Society’s Response. Transitional Justice Institute Research. Available at SSRN: or

Michelini, Felipe. 2016. Lucha contra la cultura de la impunidad. Verdad, Justicia, Memoria, Reparación: ¡Nunca Más!

Schallenmueller, Christian Jecov. 2014. Transitional Justice in Brazil and Uruguay: different solutions to the tension between human rights and democracy. Working paper presented for the FLACSO-ISA Joint International Conference in Buenos Ayres.

Soltman, Daniel. 2013. Applauding Uruguay’s Quest for Justice: Dictatorship, Amnesty, and Repeal of Uruguay Law No. 15.848., 12 Wash. U. Global Stud. L. Rev. 829 (2013),


Water struggles: Uruguay leads the way

José Mujica: speaking truth

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