Supporters of the National Party of Uruguay during a congregation in Montevideo, in a file image.Anadolu Agency (via Getty Images)
Almost a year before the general elections, Uruguayan political parties have not reached an agreement to modify the regulation of their internal financing and the money spent on electoral campaigns. There has been a special commission in Parliament that has been studying this matter since 2020, but so far it has not produced concrete results. The calendar is pressing and increases concern among experts, who warn about the advance of organized crime in the region and its incursion into politics. That this happens in Uruguay, the politicians themselves recognize, is a “latent danger” that “hits close.”
In Uruguay, the financing of political parties is governed by a law from 2009, which establishes the amounts of money they will receive from the State and regulates donations from the private sector. The public subsidy is historic, dating back to 1928. The parties receive certain amounts for the votes obtained and also permanent financing. “All the discussion we have today is about private financing,” Daniel Chasquetti, doctor in Political Science, researcher of electoral systems and political parties, tells EL PAÍS.
The political scientist points out that the 2009 law incorporated regulations on private financing, with certain rules for receiving donations. Companies can donate, but there are limits and there are prohibitions. International foundations, for example, cannot make donations. Likewise, the law establishes the procedure for rendering accounts, with deadlines for the presentation of sworn statements. And it tasks the Electoral Court, an autonomous public body, with supervising compliance. “This is where the model is failing,” says Chasquetti.
“From researching the 2009, 2014, and 2019 elections, we know that party affidavits leave a lot to be desired. There is an under-declaration, which is established as a permanent practice and generates great distrust,” continues the political scientist. He exemplifies this with a case that occurred in one of the last elections: “The Conrad Hotel in Punta del Este donated money to the three parties (National Party, Colorado Party, Frente Amplio) and the three declared different amounts. “Then the hotel’s marketing manager held a press conference to explain that they had given the same amount to all three.”
The Electoral Court, in charge of oversight, “is an institution overloaded with tasks,” says Chasquetti, and never created an internal department or division to deal with this matter. Unlike other countries that have an Electoral Tribunal and also an Electoral Service that organizes the election, in Uruguay both functions are carried out by the same institution. To control compliance with the 2009 law, he indicates, the Electoral Court only has two accountants. The Electoral Tribunal of Costa Rica, Chasquetti exemplifies, has a specialized unit with more than seventy officials, of which 75% are lawyers and accountants.
Organized crime and drug trafficking “close”
“The bullets from organized crime and drug trafficking hit close,” the mayor of Canelones (southern of the country), Yamandú Orsi, recently told VTV Noticias. Orsi, pre-candidate for president for the leftist Frente Amplio (FA), pointed out that political parties “have to take care of themselves a little more,” because every other day news also arrives “that has to do with a form of organized crime that strikes near”. In that sense, the mayor made reference, among others, to the notorious case involving Sebastián Marset, a Uruguayan drug trafficker who was a fugitive from justice, identified as the leader of the First Uruguayan Cartel. And he added: “The political system must have clearer financing rules, which I hope we can achieve at some point.”
In 2018, the Frente Amplio bench presented a bill to update the 2009 norm, but did not gather enough votes to approve it. Among other provisions, the project planned to prohibit donations from companies and only allow contributions from natural persons. “That would provide transparency, it would be known who contributes and how much they contribute. In the case of a group (company) we never fully know how it is integrated,” Carlos Varela, FA legislator, tells EL PAÍS. According to Varela, it is currently difficult to know exactly where the money comes from in all cases, because the Electoral Court “cannot exercise control efficiently.”
The project that collapsed in 2018 served as the basis for the work of the special commission that has been discussing the issue in Parliament since 2020. Dissatisfied with the text of the FA, the ruling center-right coalition indicated that it would present an alternative project, but three years later that It hasn’t happened. Conrado Rodríguez, legislator of the Colorado Party and member of the coalition, explains to this newspaper that they plan to negotiate a new article and present a preliminary draft in the coming weeks. Among his proposals, he affirms, is that of establishing a “mandatory collaboration” of the Court of Accounts with the Electoral Court, to carry out more rigorous control over the financing of the parties.
Rodríguez disagrees with the proposal of not allowing companies to make donations. “They intend to prohibit them from donating to companies, but they do not prohibit it from businessmen. What’s the difference?,” he asks. Aside from this and other discrepancies, the legislator believes that there is still time to reach a consensus, approve the law and apply it in next year’s electoral process. Rodríguez recognizes that political parties “have to be on guard” so that drug trafficking or other criminal organizations do not penetrate politics and campaign financing. “I think that Uruguay is a little different from the rest of the countries, due to the strength of its institutions and its political parties. But it is a latent danger and I cannot say that it cannot happen,” he adds.
For the Frente Amplista Varela, there are “warning signs” linked to drug trafficking and money laundering that should be addressed. “It is essential that the political system anticipates problems that can reach it at any moment,” he says. He mentions the case of drug trafficker Sebastián Marset and also Julio Deal Barrios, a Uruguayan drug trafficker arrested at the end of August in Bolivia. Deal Barrios has been a “staunch supporter of the National Party”, with manifest interest in investing in Uruguay, according to Montevideo Portal. “This is not an accusation against the National Party, it could happen to the Frente Amplio. But it is a wake-up call for everyone,” he says.
“There is a lot of money at stake and money is the poison for democracy,” says Chasquetti, quoting fellow political scientist Adam Przeworski. There are studies that show that Uruguay not only participates in the drug business as a country of passage and exit of drugs, adds the political scientist, but that it is also a preferred place to launder money. “We are aware of the risk, but due to lack of foresight this legislature could not achieve a change either,” he adds. For Chasquetti, the only way to reach a positive solution is for there to be a scandal, as happened in Chile or Costa Rica. In the face of scandal and lack of legitimacy, he assures, political parties compromise and tie their hands. “This is the dark side of Uruguayan democracy, which works well in many aspects, but in this matter it has an enormous and worrying debt,” he concludes.
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