Problems for the Frente Amplio in Uruguay

The Uruguayan Frente Amplio, a political reference for most Latin American progressives, is perceived as a bulwark against the "turn to the Right" in the region. Español

Agustín Canzani
23 May 2018

Frente Amplio supporters. Source: Nueva Sociedad. All Rights Reserved.

This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original here.

The spirit of the Frente Amplio (FA), the main party of the Uruguayan progressive Left and the governing force in the country, has always been the resolution of divergence through consensus.

Conceived as a large family in which a variety of groups representing different political traditions and ideologies coexist, the FA finds itself immersed today in a process marked by internal tensions and debates. It is facing the challenge of outlining a new progressive vision for Uruguay. 

In this process, it must avoid becoming what it has never wished to be: a testimonial radical Left for which tenure of office is merely anecdotal, or a decaffeinated Social Democracy steadily losing its social base.

Considered to be a political reference for much of the Latin American Left, the FA is a Uruguayan creation which has proved its great capacity for survival and its ability to govern. 

The reproduction of its name as a prestigious "brand" in several countries in the region is a good indicator of its notoriety and popularity. 

It is perceived abroad as a bulwark against the so-called "cycle change" which is apparently doing away with progressive governments in Latin America and replacing them with neoliberal, conservative or rightist administrations.

It is perceived abroad as a bulwark against the so-called "cycle change" which is apparently doing away with progressive governments in Latin America.

This cannot be ignored in any analysis from Uruguay, but it should also include the clouds in the sky which might jeopardize not only the FA’s electoral chances in the future but also its political project.

As has been said, the FA is like a large family in which different groups representing different political traditions and ideologies coexist in creative tension. 

They coalesce around a political commitment which combines complex internal checks and balance mechanisms for regulating its operation, with a political culture which favours agreements and decisions by consensus. 

Although Uruguayans are used to this way of doing politics, observers from abroad find it difficult to understand how is it that groups ranging from the Communist Party to Christian Democratic Party, Socialists, Social Democrats, different shades of the Latin Americanist Left and national-popular groups can actually agree on a wide range of issues and have managed to stay together for more than four decades, including almost fifteen years in government.

This has been made possible because the FA, from the start, was conceived as a programmatic alliance and not as an ideological agreement. 

This has allowed the different groups to keep their identity and at the same time to reach agreements both on a macro dimension (great principles, or rather values) and a meso dimension (direction and content of the main policy measures for a given term of office). 

Thus the representatives elected at national and subnational level have enjoyed some degree of autonomy within these directives.

This structure combines with a style of internal relations based on dialogue and permanent political negotiation, creating a dynamics focused on seeking consensus acceptable to all sides. 

This is why in Uruguay we usually say that any political synthesis which includes to some extent the different interests related to a controversial issue has been reached using the "FA code". That is, overcoming internal conflict through a position which incorporates at least some of the different viewpoints at stake.

The consensus logic and the "social block of changes"

Historically, the FA consensus has rested on two pillars: the greatness of the majorities and the loyalty of the minorities. It works like this: the majority, even though it knows full well its numerical strength, makes the effort of listening to and valuing the vision of the minority. 

And the minority, which has been included in dialogue and negotiation and has had its positions attended to in some respect, even though it is quantitatively less important, responds by supporting the position agreed upon. 

This mechanism has given rise to a historical style of relation where the process of reaching a decision is often more important than the content of the decision itself. 

The downside is, of course, that this way of doing things entails relatively high transaction costs, which is something that does not necessarily combine harmoniously with the timings the dynamics of government require.

Political interaction does not end there, however, but goes on forward "outside the wall". The FA has always considered that its political project is based on the so-called "social block of changes", a conceptual construction which assigns a relevant role in the political process to popular sectors.

Although theoretically diverse, in practical terms the trade union movement plays a decisive role in that space.

In a country where two historic parties - among the oldest in the world - persist, this political engineering has allowed the FA to emerge and play an increasingly important role in Uruguayan politics right up to the point when, twenty years ago, it became the largest political party in the country. 

It has won the last three general elections with an overall parliamentary majority and has acquired dominant party features. 

It can exhibit, in addition, a set of achievements that are not by any means trivial: sustained economic growth for more than a decade, substantial reduction of poverty and extreme poverty, improvement in income distribution, important redistributive labour, tax and healthcare reforms, and a broad agenda on rights including equal marriage, decriminalization of abortion and regulated sale of marihuana.

Turn to the Left or defense of progressivism?

But significant changes have occurred during the current term in government placing the FA in another context and in a different situation. 

The slowing down of economic growth and worsening problems in the region have significantly reduced the possibilities of further progress in a number of public policies and highlight the limitations of the current tools for pursuing a redistributive model. 

The higher fiscal deficit also sets limits to increased spending and questions some forms of public management. Changes in the regional integration processes and the new global protectionist reality challenge the foreign policy model. 

And the change of mood in some social sectors restricts the room for maneuver in tax policy. Finally, some unintended effects of certain reforms require rethinking, and this entails political erosion.

In addition, these issues arise in a period where the effectiveness of the political operating mode seems to have diminished, and where the demands and pressures from the “social bloc” have increased and diversified. 

Lack of sync between the government, the parliamentary caucus and the organizations within the FA has been more frequent, as have the differences of opinion between these groups and the social movements.

Differences of opinion within the FA can be divided into two large groups: one implies overall disagreement, and one involves debates around specific issues. 

In the first group, some growing currents within the FA are suggesting that "progressivism" is exhausted by now and that a shift to the Left and a change in several policy lines - for example, heavier taxation for certain social sectors and economic actors, or changes in the tax exemption mechanisms – are needed.

Looking towards the future, it should avoid becoming what it has never been: a radical, testimonial Left for which being in power is merely an anecdote, or a decaffeinated Social Democracy prone to losing its social base

This is opposed by those who believe that, in the current regional and global economic and political context, the government should prioritize the protection of progress through careful macroeconomic management, which leaves little room for altering the tax frontiers. 

In the second group, there are differences of opinion on specific issues such as international integration, as evidenced by the debate that has just been staged in the FA National Plenary regarding the Free Trade Agreement with Chile. 

By a narrow margin, a majority of the delegates voted for a set of changes to a base document which restrict significantly the possibility of signing free trade agreements – and thus question the parliamentary approval, by a large majority, of the agreement signed a year ago by the government.

The trade union movement is not alien to this scenario. At its congress at the end of this month, critical strongly-supported positions will surface in relation to the government and some FA policies related to the public sector and the non-tradable sectors of the economy.

How to continue?

All of the above defines a scenario characterized by low approval ratings of President Tabaré Vázquez, a climate of opinion dominated by economic pessimism, and decreasing electoral support for the FA. 

This process combines with the fact that the governing political force seems to be facing increasing difficulties in reaching internal consensus - the "FA code" is harder to apply.

This situation does not put into question the continuity of the FA as a political tool – there is wide agreement on this -, but it does pose a big dilemma: how to continue?

It seems quite clear that the “material fatigue” symptoms of the political synthesis that allowed the FA to access power in 2004 are evident both within the FA itself and in the population at large. 

What is less obvious is how much maintenance is essential and how much change should a new formulation include. "What has been achieved is worth the same as what remains to be done", said a recent slogan that tried to reconcile both perspectives. But a new political synthesis looks complex.

How to continue is not just a political question. The next elections in 2019 are a crucial test. By then, this new political synthesis should be able to build a consistent narrative claiming the achievements made, recognizing the errors, and offering an exciting promise for the future.

The task ahead is not a minor one, but it should perhaps be compared with the one faced almost half a century ago by the "founding fathers" of the FA, who had to deal with a variety of issues related to their different party stances and ideological matrixes, and who decided to go ahead with the project.

On occasions, the FA has experienced an inferiority complex due to criticism leveled by "purists" on both sides. The most radical processes in Latin America have often questioned the FA’s moderation, while the traditional European center-left has reproached what it considers the FA’s nostalgic and outmoded retrospective vision. 

But if we analyze how these critics’ political experiences have headed to and how Uruguay is doing today, a good part of what their criticism can surely be played down. Perhaps the time has come for the FA to value its history as a sound basis on which to build its future. 

Looking towards the future, it should avoid becoming what it has never been: a radical, testimonial Left for which being in power is merely an anecdote, or a decaffeinated Social Democracy prone to losing its social base. In Latin America, too many people are looking to the South for the FA to ignore this challenge.

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