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Uruguayan vote: a slap in face to military rulers

In handily rejecting a military-porposed constitution that would have given the armed forces a permanent share of power, Uruguayan voters have dealt a stunning blow to the nation's military leaders.

The rejection came as a surprise. Fort weeks, Uruguay's military government had expressed confidence in the outcome. After all, said military analysts, Chile's electorate approved a similar constitution only last September.

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Only Uruguay was not to be a repeat of Chile. As the votes piled in late Nov. 30, it became apparent that there was going to be an upset. By the time all the ballots were counted, almost 60 percent of the voters had turned down the draft constitution and its proposals to institutionalize a political role for the armed forces.

The vote was a sharp slap in the face for the military -- not only a rejection of their constitutional proposals, but to some extent also a rejection of their 10 years of increasing rule of the country, once regarded as South America's finest democracy.

Voter rejection of the military does not mean, however, that the military has lost. "It still has the guns," said an Uruguayan opposition spokesman soon after the vote trend became apparent. "The armed forces cannot idly accept the popular will, for their whole rationale has been based in the past few years on their ability -- and no one else's ability -- to run the country. They have to recover this loss of face which in a concrete sense was a sharp rebuke to them."

Military spokesmen have given no hints as to their next steps.But before the vote, Defense Minister Walter Ravenna said that if the military lost, it would simply remain in power and not propose a new constitution for at least five years.

The vote was watched carefully in neighboring countries -- particularly in Argentina, where the armed forces are debating their future role. Some Argentine military leaders had seen last September's Chilean vote, which institutionalized a continuing military rule, as the approach to take. But this vote by the Uruguayan public may alter that view.

Criticism of the draft document centered on the establishment of a National Security Council whose members would be the chiefs of the armed forces. The council would have the power to intervene in social and political life when it saw fit to do so.

The military claimed the new constitution would increase security. Its newspaper advertisements during the campaign recalled killings, kidnappings, bombings, and robberies by leftist guerrillas in the early 1970s. The military took control of the country in stages after the defeat of the guerrillas, the Tupamaros. President Juan Maria Bordaberry dissolved parliament in 1974 and ruled until 1976 when the military firmed up its rule in the wake of his removal.

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Leftist political parties were banned and an estimated 5,000 of their members were arrested along with at least 700 trade unionists. Many are still in prison.

At present, military power is vested in a council of 26 generals and admirals who rule through a civilian figurehead, President Aparicio Mendez.

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