SEMANA/Politics | 11/6/2008 12:00:00 AM
Re-election on life-support
With the vote against allowing re-election in 2014, Congress has notified Colombian President Álvaro Uribe that if he doesn’t negotiate for their support there won’t be a referendum. All indications are that Uribe won’t and thus a third term appears a more remote possibility.
The secretary general (chief of staff) of the presidency, Bernardo Moreno, who manages these matter, does not even allow the issue to be discussed. He is under criminal investigation and any misunderstanding during the process could have dire consequences for him. That same panic has taken over ministers or officials who have jobs, contracts or budget allocations to distribute, because nobody wants to become the Sabas Pretelt or Diego Palacio, government ministers who were implicated in the Yidis scandal, in the second re-election. Without indulging the Congress it was impossible for the article for the 2014 re-election to not be approved.
Paradoxically that failure made the President happy. He has never had the least interest in retiring from power and returning four years later. He doesn’t discard the possibility of a second re-election, but only it would be immediate. The interruption would not only break the continuity of the work of his government, but would also obligate him to face his successor after four years.
When the idea of the non-immediate second re-election in 2014, was first brought up, the President made some statements signaling the usefulness of this possibility in institutional terms, which gave the impression that he considered it an option. In reality, it was simply a rhetorical statement that was pressured by some supporters of the President who told them that he should not open himself up to accusations that he wanted to perpetuate himself in power and that he would rather leave a door open in case the country would need for him to return to the presidential palace. It is rumored that the two main promoters of this option were Fabio Valencia, the current minister of the Interior, and Fabio Echeverri, a former presidential advisor. For Valencia this possibility would make it easier to get his legislation approved in Congress. For Echeverri this option was appealing because in reality he is an enemy of a third term.
If there was a happier Colombian than the President about the rejection of the open door for 2014 it was Luis Guillermo Giraldo, a pro-government former senator. His two years of effort and five million signatures that he collected to promote the referendum had only one goal: that Uribe would stay for 12 years uninterrupted. The possibility of a legislative constitutional reform with the 2014 re-election option mortified him.
Something that inexplicably has him less mortified is the fact that his referendum text would in fact allow Uribe only to be re-elected in 2014. That is because of an error that Giraldo considers “incidental”. It’s about changing the phrase, “Whoever has exercised the office of the Presidency of the Republic for two constitutional terms will be able to be elected for another term,” to “Whoever has been elected to the office of the Presidency of the Republic for two periods…” . That, according to Giraldo, would solve the problem.
For the Constitutional Court, however, it is not such an easy matter. Changing “exercised” to “elected” might be considered incidental, but there is a more serious problem. When the constitutional reform was approved to permit the first re-election a provisional paragraph was included that said, “Whoever exercises or has exercised the Presidency of the Republic before the entering into effect of this reform can only be elected for one additional presidential period”. Those who drafted the referendum text made the error of not changing this paragraph that evidently hurts Uribe’s chances.
In that constitutional reform, in another section, it said something similar. “Nobody can be elected to occupy the Presidency of the Republic for more than two terms”. Even though the referendum changes this section, the fact that the provisional paragraph remains, generates a contradiction that complicates a lot of things legally. The Court obviously could make a political decision, if it interprets as “incidental” all of those corrections that are required to the original referendum text. However if the referendum is approved, there could be two subsequent and equally thorny instances for review by the Court: The Court’s competence to admit it and the definition of the threshold. Surely several justices would prefer not to have to go through this water torture.
The government collected five million signatures that would make the referendum unbeatable in Congress. However the vote against re-election political reform that took place last week demonstrates not only discontent among his base, but also serious cracks in the government coalition. The 76 votes against it mean that not only opposition parties such as the Polo Democrático and the Liberal Party are opposed, but also Cambio Radical and a good part of the U Party, both allies of Uribe. The most loyal to the President was the Conservative Party.
That the government has lost the majority in the House cannot be considered an isolated or temporary situation. This result sends a blunt message to Uribe. Either speak clearly, request congressional support and lend a hand to his allies like he did four years ago or there will be no re-election. There are telling signs that the President is not ready to do any of these three things. The Yidis syndrome not only affects his officials, but also him. Acceptable phrases in the past like, “I need your support”, and “the fatherland will appreciate it” now turn on yellow lights. What his opponents call bribery and he considers persuasion, isn’t viable today because it implies meetings and offers that neither Uribe nor his people are ready to make.
If by chance all the stars are aligned so that all of those obstacles are overcome, there remains one more that cannot be minimized: getting at least 7.5 million votes which are necessary to approve the referendum. Uribe has never been able to achieve that amount of votes in any of his previous two elections. Plus, those votes took place in a political environment much friendlier for the President than today, as there was no recession on the horizon, no protests by indigenous communities and no imminent change of leadership in the United States.
It would appear that Uribe isn’t willing to risk his immense political capital on a failure. There is reason to believe him when he states in private that he is willing to serve the country if and only if there is a consensus that doesn’t require his involvement. In other words, he is not willing to pressure anyone nor hand out jobs or budget allocations in order for him to be elected again. In Congress, everyone is in agreement that if he keeps up with this attitude, his re-election will be impossible.