In South America’s leading democracy, there is no escaping the rule of democratic law. Uruguay, a small nation wedged between Argentina and Brazil, is the gold standard of democracy within South America. The country’s democratic success has been described as a miracle, with democracy returning to the nation in 1985 following just over a decade of oppressive military rule.
The nation’s democracy was tested in 2017 by a scandal involving then Vice-President Raul Sendic. From 2009 to 2013, Sendic was the head of Uruguay’s state oil company, ANCAP. Allegations of corruption against Sendic first arose in June of 2017 following a Busqueda report which uncovered Sendic’s purchases at “jewelry, electronics, furniture and other stores” using corporate credit cards. The allegations, which Sendic denied, led to a tribunal among his own ruling coalition, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), concerning Sendic’s actions. The tribunal determined he may have misused public funds and accused him of lying, leading to Sendic’s resignation.
At a time with “Democracy in Crisis” , the actions of the free press and ruling Frente Amplio in bringing down Raul Sendic exemplify how democracy should work.
First, the importance of the free media in uncovering Sendic’s alleged corruption in Uruguay cannot be understated. Uruguay has some of the best freedoms for the press in the Americas, in part due to a 2009 law decriminalizing most cases of defamation. The existence and protection of the free media in Uruguay worked as intended by discovering and publicizing Vice-President Raul Sendic’s misuse of public funds. This in turn allowed the citizens of Uruguay to form political preferences with more basis in reality, aiding the responsiveness of the entire democracy.
Secondly, the decision of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition to investigate Raul Sendic following the allegations published by Busqueda demonstrates a respect for constitutional law over the needs of partisan politics. Eight supporters of Raul Sendic, comprising the party Lista 711 within the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition, threatened to leave the coalition if Sendic lost the Vice-Presidency due to FA sanctions. This threat was not minor; the FA coalition risked losing its majority in Uruguay’s Congress with the departure of the Lista 711 members. This view was particularly espoused by prior President and current Senator Jose Mujica, who felt the FA tribunal needed to be careful to maintain the coalition’s majority in Congress.
By placing the rule of law above perhaps the best interests of their own coalition, the members of the ruling Frente Amplio showed their support for democracy within Uruguay. The prescient issue with democratic backsliding across the globe is the tendency of parties with political power to take actions which legally shield their power or which make it more difficult to challenge their power in the future. Uruguay’s FA clearly rejected this idea by advancing an investigation into the potential misdeeds of a member of their own coalition, even as it risked their own ruling majority.
This decision by the Frente Amplio exemplifies the mutual trust between actors in the political system necessary for democratic stability under the idea of Juan Linz. For Linz, legitimacy was crucial to the success of a democracy, with legitimacy referring to the common belief in a nation of the “right of those legally elevated to authority to issue certain types of commands[.]” By risking their ruling power to investigate one of their own members, the FA demonstrated a respect for the law of Uruguay which in turn increases the legitimacy of the overall democracy. Further, this action demonstrated a confidence in the character of the opposition parties, as the FA was willing to potentially become an opposition party until the next election in order to pursue the rule of law. This again increases the legitimacy of democracy within Uruguay.
It is important to note, however, that the Frente Amplio may not have been acting purely on the ideals of democratic legitimacy in investigating Raul Sendic. The pressures created by a free press may have influenced the FA in creating the tribunal. Since the free media was able to publicize the alleged fund misuse of Sendic, the public was aware of Sendic’s behavior and was able to formulate preferences accordingly. Thus, the FA may have had no choice but to investigate Sendic—not investigating Sendic could have hurt the entire coalition in the next election.
The relationship between the free press and the actions of the Frente Amplio can perhaps never be fully known. It is currently impossible to know if the FA would have investigated Sendic on the condition that the public was unaware of Sendic’s actions. However, the combined effort between the media and Frente Amplio in forcing Raul Sendic’s resignation can still be seen as a victory for democracy. Regardless of whether the free media forced the ruling coalition’s hand or if the FA placed the ideals of democracy over political success, Uruguay’s liberal democracy stood strong in taking down Vice-President Raul Sendic.
Featured photograph by Gabriel Millos, “Uruguay Bandera”, Creative Commons License