News Article

Internal Elections, First Stage of the Uruguayan Electoral Process
Montevideo, Uruguay

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Image credit: Rodrigo Valla

Image credit: Rodrigo Valla

For the fifth time in Uruguayan history, simultaneous and open internal elections were held by the political parties last 30 June 2019, in keeping with the current legal framework for elections.

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After the constitutional reform, which was the subject of a referendum and was approved in 1996, internal elections were included in Uruguay’s constitutional order. At the same time, they constitute primary elections in relation to the subsequent dates on the election calendar (national, departmental and municipal).

Held for the first time in 1999, two decades have elapsed since the first pronouncement by of the Electoral Body (Cuerpo Electoral) of the nominations of the single presidential candidates of the political parties and the constitution of their national and departmental deliberative bodies.

On this occasion, 15 political parties held internal elections; of these, only four registered a plurality of pre-candidates for president: six from the Partido Colorado, five from the Partido Nacional, four from the Frente Amplio, and two from the Partido de la Gente. The other parties nominated only one candidate each. In all, there were 28 pre-candidates for the office of the president.

In Uruguay votes are cast using ballots identified by the respective party’s motto, which is printed by the parties themselves following requirements established by the Electoral Court in the corresponding regulation. The ballot should include the pre-candidate for president and the list of candidates for the national deliberative body and on the other sheet (of smaller size) the list of candidates for the departmental deliberative bodies. For the elections held last 30 June, the ballots regsitered were 3,411 with their respective slates of candidates for both bodies; 1,363 for the national deliberative body and 2,048 for the departmental ones.


Characteristics of the Election and Oversight by The Electoral Court

According to Law 17,063 of 10 December 1998, the Electoral Court takes cognizance of “everything related to electoral acts and procedures referring to the internal elections of the political parties”; it is the “judge in those electoral acts and procedures”; and it decides “on a non-appealable basis all claims and appeals that arise on occasion of registering the ballots, during the vote counts, and when proclaiming the results.” Accordingly, the maximum organ of the Uruguayan electoral system has assigned to it the powers to organize the act, issuing the regulations necessary for doing so, and to sit as appellate judge of the decisions adopted by the party bodies on matters or acts governed by the statute (i.e., when the national and departmental conventions operate as electoral colleges to choose the candidate for vice president, and possibly president and intendant [intendente] in each department). It also has the power to oversee the composition of those same bodies, as well as their procedures and votes, and to proclaim the outcome in the case of nominations of candidates for president, vice president, and intendant.

In addition, the single presidential candidates of the parties are elected simultaneously in these internal elections. Elections are compulsory for the parties if they are to be able to participate in the national election, and in that sense they can be considered primaries.

Otherwise, very specific provisions apply that are drawn from the general electoral system and adapted to the specific electoral act of the parties, in some cases with notable peculiarities.

For example, as regards the candidacies, one and the same person can be a candidate for the national deliberative body or the departmental deliberative bodies of a political party on more than one list, in the same department or in different departments.

Nonetheless, in the case of the national deliberative body, this plurality is only allowed if the person whose candidacy is repeated is on lists of candidates who are accompanying the same pre-candidate for president. The pre-candidate for president, in this circumstance, operates with the same effects of a party motto, but within the party election.

As a sanction, the law provides that persons who violate this precept, by appearing on more than one list of the same or different parties, shall not be proclaimed a winner by any of them.

Another check when the ballots are registered has to do with complying with the legal provision that establishes gender diversity in the composition of the candidacies. In effect, the lists of candidates for the national deliberative body, as well as in the lists for the departmental deliberative bodies, must include persons of both sexes, in each slate of candidates, for both principals and alternates, throughout the list, even if the list is incomplete.

If the law does not meet with compliance, the Electoral Boards will deny the registry of the ballots in question, without detriment to granting authorization to those who had presented them, so long as they register a new ballot in the proper conditions within two days of the denial.

The principle of proportional representation is applied when constituting the deliberative bodies and conventions (both national and departmental); their members are elected by department. The national bodies, which are made up of 500 members, with a like number of alternates, act as electoral college to elect the candidate for vice president of the Republic.

They may also elect a candidate for president, if no candidate has been elected by the majorities required in the internal or primary election. Those majorities are the absolute majority of valid votes cast under that motto, or more than 40 per cent so long as the pre-candidate who attains more than 40 per cent has an advantage of not less than 10 per cent over the pre-candidate who follows him or her in the number of votes.

The departmental bodies are composed of a number of members equal to four times what corresponds to each department in the national deliberative body of the respective party, with a minimum of 50 and a maximum of 250. They can nominate up to three candidates for intendant per party in the department.

In the internal elections, all the provisions applicable in the national elections apply, as relevant; these are found in Law No. 7,812, of 16 January 1925, its amendments and supplemental texts, insofar as they are not at odds with what is provided for especially by Transitory Provision W of the Constitution, and by the law that regulates such elections. The supplemental law on elections also applies for the purpose of adjudicating positions in the national and departmental conventions.

Of the two ballots available to each voter, one national and one departmental, just one or both may be placed in the ballot envelope; but if both are placed, they must correspond to the same party. This means that it is not allowed to vote for one party in the national election and another in the departmental election. Should there be a vote contrary to that rule, it will give rise to the annulment of all the ballots contained in the envelope.

In summary, the internal or primary elections are, as indicated above, simultaneous for all the parties, and also obligatory for the parties if they aspire to participate in the national election, held every five years on the last Sunday of June the same year as the national election, with the general rolls of persons entered in the National Civic Registry, under the auditor of the Electoral Court. And even though the vote is cast by secret ballot, it is not obligatory for voters, unlike the national and departmental elections.


Participation, Guarantees and Transmission of Results

As they are elections in which participation is voluntary the numbers of persons going to the polling places are generally far below what one sees in the national and departmental elections in which voting is compulsory.

In the first internal election (1999) the percentage of participation reached 53.7 per cent of those qualified to vote. In the next three that percentage dropped off as follows: 45.7 per cent (2004), 44.8 per cent (2009), and 37 per cent (2014). The trend reverted last 30 June, with a 40 per cent turnout, which meant a total of 1,078,992 votes cast nationwide.

Presidential candidates were elected in each of the three parties with the largest legislative representation: Daniel Martínez (Frente Amplio), Luis Lacalle Pou (Partido Nacional), and Ernesto Talvi (Partido Colorado). They will compete in the national election on Sunday, 27 October, with the candidates elected by nine other parties (Independiente, Asamblea Popular, de los Trabajadores, Ecologista Radical Intransigente, Verde Animalista, de la Gente, Cabildo Abierto, and Digital). Because of not having attained the minimum number of votes to hold their national conventions, four parties (de la Concertación, Orden Republicano, Abriendo Caminos, and Democrático Unido) have lost their registration for this term.

The 7,068 polling places will operate from 8:00 to 19:30, one of the longest election days known.

At the end of that period the poll officers wrote up the closing act, opened the ballot box, and began the vote count. The procedures for this primary vote count are spelled out in great detail in the law, the regulation, and the instructions given to the poll officers. One could characterize the work as artisanal, and requiring special organizational capacity from the very moment that the first envelope with ballots is opened, and the ballots are removed. Step by step, one must first proceed to the general vote count for the circuit, and then to the particularized vote counts of each party, with the respective vote tally sheets handed in.

Surrounded by the maximum assurances, this procedure, which notably is manual, performed in front of the poll watchers of the different political party groupings, for the first time on this occasion had a digital backup, in whose application the chief poll officer recorded all the information from the vote counts. After the required verification of agreement between the data produced by the different operations, those results were transmitted directly to the information and technology units of the Electoral Court by a private and armored network to avoid possible interference.

The success achieved with the incorporation of these technological innovations augurs in a new stage of progressive advances in the Uruguayan electoral system. It does so without altering—and in any case just supplementing—the substantive base of guarantees that have been essential characteristics and strengths of the system in its already long history (Uruguay’s electoral system will mark its centennial in the next five years).


About the Guest Contributor

Wilfredo Penco

PhD in Law and Social Sciences from the University of the Republic (UDELAR). Minister of the Electoral Court of Uruguay since 1996 and vice president since 2010. Chief and head of international electoral observation missions by UNIORE, UNASUR and OAS. President of the National Academy of Letters of Uruguay and "correspondiente" of the Royal Spanish Academy.