Participatory Democracy at a Crossroads: Montevideo's Neighborhood Councils

April 26, 2016

On 28 February 1990, only a few days after taking office, mayor Tabaré Vásquez1 from the Frente Amplio (FA) signed a decree initializing the decentralization of the city of Montevideo.2 After a period of tension and obstruction from the opposition parties (Partido Blanco and Partido Colorado), the new government agreed to call for a joint committee to promote the decentralization of the capital. As a result of this process of negotiations, three local institutions were installed in each of the 18 newly created zones: Community centers (centros comunales zonales, CCZs), with the mandate of managing services and administrative procedures; Local executive boards (juntas locales, JLs) originally composed of five representatives recruited from political parties3; and Neighborhood councils (concejos vecinales, CVs), filled by elected residents living in the respective zone.

Through the model of participatory decentralization, the FA expected to deliver more responsive, effective services and to increase citizen's engagement. Although there is substantial evidence that the city’s decentralization program has led to service improvements and achievements (Chávez 2005), the results with regard to the functioning of participatory  institutions are not as clear cut and seem to experience challenges from the institutional design as well as the citizen's (decreasing) support.

What makes an institution of participatory democracy successful? The literature dealing with participatory democracy at the local level generally emphasizes the combination of the institution's influence on policy-making, quality of deliberation, and citizen engagement (Baiochi and Ganuza 2014; Geissel and Newton 2012, Fung and Wright 2003, Ferla et. Al 2014). We therefore argue that a sustainable institution of citizen participation would ideally (i) have some influence in policy-making, (ii) be recognized and legitimated by citizens, and (iii) be able to attract a constant or increasing number of participants. Focusing on the neighborhood councils (CVs) that have been operational in Montevideo since 1993, we explore the extent to which this institution can be regarded as a consolidated participatory practice.


Influence in Policy Making

As consultative bodies, CVs should serve as a bridge between the needs, demands, and suggestions of the neighbors and the governmental authorities. Without formal power in decision-making, they have an indirect influence on the definition of those programs, governmental policies, and measures that affect their respective territories by advising representatives or by generating proposals. It is, however, the government who decides whether or not to consult with CVs and take into account their advice.

Backed up by fieldwork including expert interviews and focus groups, our research suggests that CVs are not considered as major players per se. According to the councilors, the few occasions on which the executive consulted with CVs on issues affecting their territories show that the relationship is far from ideal. Most councilors claim that (a) the government is generally not held accountable for its decisions, (b) that councilors’ proposals are not taken into account, and (c) that the government has difficulties in fulfilling its commitments. In several interviews the term verticalazos (a colloquial expression that refers to those bypassed in the decision-making process by a higher authority and confronted with facts that cannot be changed) is used to describe the way the executive overpass CVs.



CVs are usually open to the participation of citizens who are not council members (in commissions, plenary meetings, or “open councils” in particular). However, organizations and residents attend council meetings infrequently and only on specific occasions. All our interviewees noticed that CVs spend most of their time on administrative tasks, which is detrimental to maintaining dialogue with locals and social organizations. This produces a way of working that is isolated from local residents and alienates existing social organizations. In general, locals do not know what CVs are, what functions they have, what issues they address, what they have achieved, or who the CV councilors are.

One of the main difficulties CVs face in their relationships with the neighborhoods they represent is that communities expect them to resolve problems even though they do not have the competencies to do so. So, neighbors expect something from the CV but the CV does not have the power to offer solutions.  This vicious circle produces problems of legitimacy, resulting in CVs being perceived as meaningless.



Is the low influence on policy making and the decreasing legitimacy affecting participation? On average, 82,000 citizens voted in each of the nine CV elections (1993–2013), representing a turnout of between 7 and 10.8 percent of the electorate. Even these low levels of turnout is considered satisfactory when compared to similar experiences in the region (Goldfrank 2011). A different picture emerges if we look at the evolution over time.

The first year of elections had the lowest participation (with 68,558 voters, 7.3%), but this could be attributed to the novelty of the councils. A considerable increase was observed between 1995 and 1998 (up to 106,909 voters, 11.2%). However, since then there has been a steady decrease in voter numbers. On three occasions participatory budgeting voting was merged with councilor elections, but there appeared to be no clear effect on the level of turnout (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Number of Voters and Turnout for CV Elections in Montevideo, 1993–2013

Source: See Serdült and Welp (2015, p. 148)

A similar trend can be observed for the number of candidates to CVs, which went down by more than half, from 2,123 in 2001 to 975 in 2013. The number of councillors also declined accordingly. Although the average total number of elected councilors stands at 604, the 518 elected last time (2013) around represent a record low.


Figure 2: Number of Candidates, Number of Councilors, and Candidate–Councilor Ratio for CV Elections in Montevideo, 1993–2013

Source: See Serdült and Welp (2015, p. 148)

To deal with the decreasing number of candidates, some CVs reduced the number of seats. Following changes to departmental regulations, CVs have been able to work with a minimum of 15 members (previously 25) since 2011. The government argues that this reduction reflects changes in the territorial boundaries, which have established new municipalities. Others, however, have pointed out that there were fewer candidates than positions to fill during recent elections (especially when considering that for each councilor a replacement needs to be elected) during recent elections.

Since 2004 there has been a steady downturn in the number of candidates as well as and in the level of permanence in offices. In the interviews and informal exchanges conducted, we noted that participants agreed among the number of candidates, there was an increase of the ones standing as individuals without the support of any social organization. This is related to changes in incentives and motivations to participate as a councilor. One of the councilors we interviewed mentioned that this could be down to, on the one hand, the difference between “what councilors are expected by the council to achieve and what is possible and effectively achieved” and, on the other hand, the consolidation of new institutions that are able to address public problems that were more difficult to resolve before the process of decentralization. Moreover, it is noted that for many participants, CVs have served as a stepping-stone to a political career. In fact, the governing political party itself has treated CVs as a hotbed for candidates. For some, this has had a positive impact to the extent that it has helped the government apparatus incorporate more prominent personalities to respond to locals, while others point out that this strategy devalues CVs. 



The institution of the CV in Montevideo has been identified as an outstanding example of participatory democracy. However, after a period of high hopes on the part of both citizens and elected councilors, a decline in public support could be observed in recent years (parallel to representatives' efforts to publicize the institution). Based on qualitative and quantitative data, we found evidence of a clear downward trend that was especially evident in the decreasing number of participants interested in becoming councilors and the decreasing election turnout.

As a consultative body, CVs have become increasingly excluded from decision-making processes, much to the frustration of a significant number of councilors. Although the political will for reforms by the Frente Amplio was of course key to the creation of decentralized mechanisms for civic participation in Montevideo, we saw that CVs underwent institutional design changes that were detrimental to their functioning. Uncoupling their functions from participatory-budgeting voting and overlooking them in decision-making processes have made CV members appear powerless vis-à-vis citizens; as a consequence, they have lost credibility. 

Given these circumstances, the institution of the CV in Montevideo stands at a crossroads. With even less candidates and participants in the next elections, it will be difficult to justify their existence. Based on our assessment, the direction in which the institution should move regarding its degree of formalization is an open question that involves certain trade-offs. One option is to return responsibility for the participatory-budgeting process back to CVs and formalize their role in decision making. Such a move would most likely enhance the reputation of the CV and see CVs become more politicized. Alternatively, transforming them into neighborhood associations without directly elected members could help CVs increase their legitimacy vis-à-vis citizens. Such a strategy could allow them to engage with locals and to play a role in community politics more freely. Which way to go is of course open for debate. However, we fear that without reform the upcoming CV elections in 2016 will only confirm the current trend.


1 After serving as the mayor of Montevideo (1990–1994), Vásquez was also elected president of Uruguay twice (2005–2010; 2015–).

2 This article summarizes research published in the Journal of Politics in Latin America (2015). The study was conducted by the Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau (ZDA) at the University of Zurich, the Instituto de Estudios del Desarrollo Regional y Local (IDEL) of the Universidad Católica del Uruguay, the Instituto de Ciencia Política de la Universidad de la República and the Defensoría del Vecino de Montevideo. The field work was carried out by Paula Ferla and Alejandra Marzuca.

3 This set-up was maintained until 2010, when the Law of Political Decentralization and Citizen Participation entered into force, creating municipal governments throughout the country and thus replacing the JLs in Montevideo.



Baiochi, Gianpaolo, and Ernesto Ganuza (2014), Participatory Budgeting as if Emancipation Mattered, in: Politics & Society, 42, 1, 29–50.

Chávez, Daniel (2005), Del Frente Amplio a la Nueva Mayoría. La izquierda uruguaya ante la perspectiva del gobierno, in: Daniel Chávez, Patrick Barrett, and César Rodríguez Garavito (eds), La nueva izquierda en América Latina: Sus orígenes y trayectoria futura, Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma, 149–190.

Ferla, Paula, Alejandra Marzuca Perera, Uwe Serdült, and Yanina Welp (2014) Corriendo de atrás: Análisis de los Concejos Vecinales de Montevideo, in: Iconos, 48, 121–137.

Fung, Archon, and Ollin Wright (2003), Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovation in Empowered Participatory Governance, London: Verso.

Geissel, Brigitte, and Ken Newton (2012), Evaluating Democratic Innovations - Curing the Democratic Malaise?, Abingdon: Routledge.

Goldfrank, Benjamin (2011), Deepening Local Democracy in Latin America. Participation, Decentralization, and the Left. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Serdült, Uwe and Yanina Welp (2015) “How Sustainable is Democratic Innovation? Tracking Neighborhood Councils in Montevideo”, Journal of Politics in Latin America2, 131-148.

About Author(s)

uweserdult's picture
Uwe Imre Serdült
Uwe Serdült is vice-director at the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy (c2d) and works there as a principle investigator and lecturer. Before coming to Aarau he taught and worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Universities of Zurich and Geneva respectively. Research stays lead him to Poland (PU Cracow), Japan (Waseda and Ritsumeikan University) and the USA (University of Pittsburgh, PA). He studied History, Political Science and Computer Science at the Universities of Zurich and Geneva. Currently, his main research interest is on digital politics, especially internet voting.
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Yanina Welp
YANINA WELP is Regional Director for Latin America at the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy (Zentrum für Demokratie Aarau, University of Zurich). She has completed a PhD in Political and Social Sciences at the Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona, Spain) and holds a degree in Political Science and in Social Communication Science, both from the University of Buenos Aires. Her main areas of study are the mechanisms of direct and participatory democracy in Latin America and digital media and politics. Webpage: