Direct Democracy Not Violence

Uruguay Leads the Way

In Bolivia water privatization gave rise to the “Cochabamba Water War”. In Uruguay direct democracy was used to stop privatization of public services. Access to clean water became a human right.

In Cochabamba, Bolvia’s third largest city, water supply was privatized, not without the usual “help” from the World Bank, in 1999. Water tariffs were raised substantially and the people were rising up in revolt against it. The intense and partly violent struggle for “water and life” took four months. It ended with the cancellation of the privatization contract, the multinational U.S. Bechtel Corporation was made to leave Bolivia, and the water works returned into public hands. The “water war” of Cochabamba marked the beginning of a revolution: the ruling political parties lost all their power, Evo Morales was elected president in 2005, and a completely new constitution came into force in 2009. After the water war in Cochabamba the winning coalition fell apart, and ten years later many of the poorest in the city still remain without access to clean water.


Part of a mural created by Mona Caron

In Uruguay the struggles against privatization of water and other public services took a different form. Unlike Bolivia, Uruguay has a long tradition of efficiently run direct democracy. President José Battle y Ordoñez (1856 – 1929), influenced by the Swiss experience, was instrumental for the introduction of direct democracy in the country. The constitution of 1917 was ratified by popular vote. However, it was only in the constitution of 1934 that direct democracy (obligatory referendum, popular initiative) was introduced, which was then revised in 1942 and expanded in 1967. But after 1967 there followed long years of economic crisis and social unrest that led to a military dictatorship (1973 –1985), and only afterwards was the expanded direct democracy put into practice. Between 1985 and 2010 direct-democratic procedures were used 17 times: there were 7 citizen-initiated referendums, 5 citizens’ initiatives, 2 obligatory referendums and 3 authorities’ minority plebiscites. In Switzerland, during the same time period, there were 215 popular votes on the federal (national) level alone, and a multiple number more on the local and cantonal level.

Popular Vote Procedures in Uruguay

Procedure Remarks Constitution
Popular initiative with authorities’ counter-proposal (PCI+) Initiated by 10% of the electorate, participation quorum: 35% electorate 1 331A
Authorities’ minority plebiscite (MTP) Initiated by 2/5 of the General Assembly, participation quorum: 35% electorate 1 331B
Obligatory referendum (LOR) Decision of Constitutional Assembly, approval quorum: 35% electorate 1 331C
Obligatory referendum (LOR) Constitutional law, simple majority of the votes cast 1 331D
Popular referendum (PCR) Initiated by 25% electorate, excluded: taxes and issues in the exclusive competency of the executive, empty vote counted as a “no” vote, simple majority of the votes cast 2 79
1 for constitutional reform; local name: plebiscito 2 for statutory issues, local name: referéndum
In Uruguay, direct democracy made it possible to resist privatization of public services not by insurrection, but through voting at the ballot box. Privatization of the state telephone company was stopped by means of a citizen-initiated referendum on 13 December 1992. Five articles of the Law No. 16.211 providing for the sale of public companies were abrogated by an overwhelming majority of 71,6% of the valid votes (55% of the eligible voters). This first successful referendum against a far-reaching privatization law was well noticed worldwide. It was one of the first democratic responses against a free-market economic policy that was perceived as detrimental to the interests of the people. The country’s power establishment had reached an agreement on making the privatization law. But the majority of the citizens disagreed. They understood that they would bear the costs while the benefits would accrue to private corporations. Privatization would diminish the power of democracy and increase peoples’ dependence on big business.

In 2002 privatization of the state-owned mobile phone operator was challenged by citizens. They collected the required number of signatures (25% of the eligible voters) for a citizen-initiated referendum. Opinion polls showed that the overwhelming majority of the voters intended to vote against privatization. Before voting the government repealed the law and no referendum had to be held.

The next step was the struggle for oil. In 2003, the referendum against ending the monopoly on import, export and refinement of oil of the state-owned ANCAP company was accepted. At that time the struggle for water was already under way.


Water privatization had started in the middle of the 1990s in the Department of Maldonado. In 2002 the government signed a letter of intent with the International Monetary Fond (IMF) about the expansion of privatization throughout the economy, including a commitment to nationwide water privatization. This led to the formation of a resistance movement organised under the National Commission for the Defence of Water and Life (CNDAV). This time a citizens’ initiative was used to propose a change of constitution, not a citizen-initiated referendum to repeal a law. One reason for this was the fear, that international trade agreements (ALCA) would override national law in case of conflict. The citizens’ initiative demanded that access to drinking water and sanitation should be enshrined in the constitution as a human right, and that all the resources of water extraction, production and commercialisation should be maintained by the state.

International financial institutions and corporate interests tried to influence the referendum campaign, but this made popular resistance even stronger rather than weakening it. However, these interventions showed what kind of powers and problems proponents of citizens’ initiatives have to face. In October 2004 a clear majority voted in favour of the initiative. The result was also a consequence of the usual bad experiences with water privatization such as exorbitant increase in water prices, bad water services, environmental and water quality problems, and so on. After the vote the transnational corporations eventually left the country. Access to safe water and sanitation should be guaranteed to the whole population, based on sustainability and public participation in the planning, management and control of the water resources.

The vote in 2004 that changed the constitution was not the end of the whole initiative process; next, the constitutional change had to be put into practice. Implementation is often a tortuous and long process, which requires additional lawmaking (the Water Law (Ley 18 610) was approved on 2 October, 2009).


The state owned enterprise OSE provides drinking water to all of Uruguay and
sanitation services to the interior of the country.

The successfull citizens’ initiative made Uruguay an inspiration for the global water struggle. In many other Latin American states people were fighting against privatization and commodification of water. The multinational water coporations pulled out of Latin America due to a lack of profitability and because of strong popular resistance. The idea that the supply of clean water should be a basic human right got wings. For example Bolivia’s new constitution enshrines water and sanitation as a human right. In July 2010 the General Assembly of the United Nations recognized access to clean water and sanitation as a human right.

The major instruments of direct democracy, the citizens’ initiative and the citizen-initiated referendum, are used in Switzerland and in Uruguay. In both countries parliament can make a counter-proposal to a citizens’ initiative. However, the legal design of these instruments shows considerable differences. The most conspicuous concerns the number of signatures that are required. A citizens’ initiative to change the constitution requires in Switzerland 100’000 signatures or about two per cent of the whole electorate, whereas in Uruguay the corresponding number is ten per cent. In Switzerland a legislative referendum is held, if 50’000 voters (about 1 per cent of the whole electorate) do require it, in Uruguay in turn the corresponding number is as much as 25 per cent. Direct democracy in Switzerland is therefore much more user-friendly and demands less financial and organisational resources than in Uruguay, where only very strong actors can use it. In Uruguay direct democracy was introduced top-down, whereas in Switzerland it was born bottom-up, under the pressure of an irresistible democratic movement. This is the central reason for why the hurdles are much higher in Uruguay than in Switzerland. A similar relationship between origination and usability can be observed also in Germany: the most user-friendly direct democracy procedures exist in Bavaria and Hamburg where they were designed by citizens and emerged as the result of a citizens’ initiative.

Related Links

Popular votes in Uruguay 1985-2016

Article 47: Water as a human right recognized in the Constitution of Uruguay in 2004

UN resolution: Water as a human right recognized by the UN General Assembly in 2010

Grandma Cricket – The Myth of the Water Woman


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updated 18.04.2016