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| 6/2/2009 12:00:00 AM

“Nobody is irreplaceable in politics”

Jon Elster, one of the most respected social scientists of the world is visiting Bogotá this week. He spoke to SEMANA about his vision on Colombia, democracy and reelection.

Jon Elster is currently one of the most important academicians in the world. His rational action theory, which is something like interpreting political phenomena based on economic theories, appears in the philosophy and political science books of the best universities in the world. Before taking part in a research seminar in the Universidad Nacional, in Bogotá, he spoke with Semana and explained the need to think about the impact that a second reelection could have in Colombian politics.
You speak about social norms and emotions. Can you speak about a relationship between political norms and emotions? I want to ask you this because some justify a second change in the constitution so that President Alvaro Uribe can be reelected for a third term in office, arguing that he is the most popular leader since polls started to exist.

Yes, the violation of political norms can trigger very strong emotions. In the United States there was until 1940 an unwritten constitutional norm that nobody could serve as President more than twice. When Theodore Roosevelt stood for a third term after a split in the Republican Party, which had failed to nominate him, feelings ran high. While on one of his speech-making tours, Mr. Roosevelt was shot at by a man who said: ‘I shot Theodore Roosevelt because he was a menace to the country. He should not have a third term. I shot him as a warning that men must not try to have more than two terms as President.’

Information is a fundamental element in a process which involves making decisions. How can you guarantee that in a context of poverty, like Colombia, the majority of the people have all the information they need about the candidates and the elections?

There is a saying that you can lead the horse to the water, but you cannot make it drink. Even if the government makes information available to the citizens, they still have to be interested in reading, viewing or listening to what is offered. I believe this will happen only if they believe that elections matter, and that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

Is it “rational” that the ones who defend a government promote an institutional change in order to favour the presidential reelection, arguing that there are “no more leaders”?

It may be rational from the point of view of their self-interest to make this claim, but the claim does not sound plausible. There are very few exceptions in politics to the maxim that nobody is irreplaceable or indispensable.

Can phenomena like drug trafficking in Colombia, be thought as actions in which individual rationality prevails? 

From a purely business perspective, I assume that drug trafficking can be run more or less rationally. The strong component of violence in the drug business does, however, have the potential for undermining rationality.

In a recent study about kidnapping in civil wars, you emphasize on the Colombian case. Do you see Colombia as a civil war or as an armed conflict? What is particular about the Colombian case, which makes it different from other violent contexts?

Whether you see the violence in Colombia as part of a civil war or of an armed conflict depends on how you assess the motives of the participants. For an outsider, it is difficult to judge whether the FARC remains a social movement or whether it is by now essentially a mafia. What makes Colombia special is that drug money provides an essentially unlimited access to weapons and other prerequisites of warfare.

In a case like the Colombian one, how do you solve the tension between institutional stability and the wish the majority have for a reelection?

The Colombian constitution has a relatively low threshold for passing a constitutional amendment, simple majority in each chamber. In most other countries, a supermajority is required, often two thirds. The purpose of making it difficult to amend the constitution is precisely to impose some fetters on the wish of the majority.

Are you still convinced about Amartya Sen’s argument that there should not be famine in countries where there are free elections and freedom of the press? 

I have not seen any theoretical objections to his claim. My friend Pranab Barhdan tells me, however, that the facts on the ground are a bit more complicated than Sen makes them out to be.

Adam Przeworski defines democracy as a regime in which there is a certainty about the rules and uncertainty about the results. Do you agree with this definition? How does it apply to Colombia?

One cannot really agree or disagree with a definition. One can say, however, that uncertainty about the results shows that elections matter, which is a desirable feature. I would add that a similar argument applied to the legal system: if the outcome of trials can be predicted with certainty, it is a sign that the law doesn’t really matter.

How would you apply your transitional justice proposal to cases like Colombia? 

I do not really have any transitional justice proposal. I have studied transitional justice in a comparative perspective to try to understand the variation across countries with regard to retribution and restitution after a transition to democracy. In the Colombian case, it is rather a matter of transition from civil war (or armed conflict) to civil peace. Crucially, transitional justice is part of the transition itself, in the sense that opponents to the regime will not step down unless they have some assurance that they will not be harshly punished.
There is, however, a difficulty that is also known from other Latin American countries and from Eastern Europe: a government cannot credibly promise that parliaments or the courts will enforce leniency precisely because of the uncertainty surrounding the decisions of these institutions. It is puzzling to me that the government did not anticipate the reactions of the Colombian constitutional court to the law on justice and peace.

The majority of Colombians support presidential reelection even though this is possible thanks to a process in Congress which has been denounced for political favoritism. How would you explain this “cognitive dissonance”? 

I assume that the support for his reelection is linked to the strong popular support for his policies. The fact that he is also supported by an institution, Congress, that does not enjoy the confidence of the people does not necessarily make a difference. A situation in which A likes B, A dislikes C and C likes B may create some dissonance in A, but not always. For all I know, it is also possible that the people has greater confidence in the Constitutional Court than in the Senate, even though the members of the Court are appointed by the Senate.

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