Mechanisms of direct democracy were used for the first time in Uruguay when its second constitution was approved by a national referendum held in 1917. It established the right of popular initiatives on municipal matters if backed by the signatures of 25% of the voters registered in a provincial district. A constitutional reform passed in 1966 states that the citizenry may use initiatives and referendums at both national and provincial levels to annul or derogate laws. Moreover, the electorate must be consulted on any constitutional reform or amendment by means of the so-called “plebiscite”, which is the last step of a long process that any initiative —be it raised in Congress or at a popular level — must complete.
Abortion, youth and environment
Recently popular initiatives to force the call for a referendum and two constitutional plebiscites were launched in 2012 and 2013. The novelty is that conservative sectors made up largely of centre-right Colorado and Nacional parties’ supporters promoted two of these initiatives aimed at repealing the abortion legalization bill and lowering the age of minors’ legal responsibility in the constitution. The other initiative, to ban open- pit iron mining, is still in a preliminary stage since its promoters —environmentalist organizations together with agricultural producers associations— must collect the required number of signatures in order for a constitutional plebiscite to take place.
Most of the fifteen popular consultations (plebiscites and referendums) that took place in Uruguay in the past 30 years (after the military dictatorship ended in 1985) were called for as a result of initiatives launched and promoted by progressive social organizations and/or the leftist Frente Amplio party. But since the Frente Amplio party took office in 2005, leftist citizens have reduced their use of direct democracy mechanisms. At the same time, groups linked to centre-right parties, which are now in the opposition, have started to promote initiatives and referendums.
Consequently, the use of such tools is no longer associated with the idea of a certain ideological leaning, but with the role political parties are playing in terms of being either government or opposition. “The development of Uruguay’s political process shows the absence of an alleged elective affinity between the left and direct democracy mechanisms”, said Rafael Piñeiro, a political scientist who works at the Political Science Department of Universidad Católica del Uruguay...
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