Cover Story | 1/13/2009 12:00:00 AM
The shadow of Uribe’s reelection
The new year begins with the uncertainty created by the ghost of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s reelection. The institutional limbo that this has created should not go on much longer.
The combination of these two uncertainties threatens the national outlook in a year that already does not look so promising. The economic crisis depends, in great part, on external factors over which the government has no control. The political crisis, however, has its origin in the ambiguity that Uribe has created surrounding a possible third presidential term. As a consequence of this ambiguity, the country finds itself in a sort of political paralysis that is resulting in institutional limbo.
Legislation of great importance has not been able to be discussed in order to give priority to the president’s reelection. Respectable political leaders who have legitimate presidential aspirations scratch their heads and don’t know how to face the president’s lack of clarity. Political parties are blinded because they don’t know how to play their cards regarding the upcoming elections. The international community, beginning with the new government of Barack Obama, sees this turn towards caudillismo with concern. In the media, no serious newspaper, magazine or columnist supports Uribe continuing in power. The Colombian public, generally speaking, even though still Uribista (supportive of Uribe), is less and less in support of the second reelection.
What is disconcerting about all of this is that the country and Uribe are assuming this enormous cost without much chance that the presidential second reelection will materialize. The path that it has to follow from here on is a tortuous one and full of obstacles.
The current situation is like that because the reelection referendum for 2014 was approved by the House of Representatives after a mini coup d’état by the government in the Congress at the stroke of midnight- and via some irregular extra sessions. Now the legislation has been sent to the Senate, where the government’s steamroller will guarantee that it will not only be approved but that it will be modified to be applied for the elections of 2010. It isn’t assured that the modification of this date will be ruled legal, but the government has made it clear that it is not concerned about judicial subtleties.
After the referendum is approved and modified by the Senate, it needs the go-ahead from the Electoral Council and the Constitutional Court. If it succeeds in the first, in the second it will be more difficult. At present, there are two vacancies in the court and the government will try to guarantee that the chosen judges will be completely in line with them on the subject of reelection. But still the numbers of irregularities that have arisen in the process with regards to financing as well as legal issues are so great that even the Uribista machinery in all its might will not be able to guarantee that the final approval by the court is assured. Each high court magistrate is- at the end of the day- putting his prestige as a justice on the line in this matter.
Unless something exceptional happens or the government resorts to a fait accompli, today it is almost impossible that a legal avenue will be approved to permit Uribe to be reelected immediately once again. The referendum path, for example, is practically dead, because of four reasons: money, time, procedural problems, and votes.
The financial accounts of the referendum are still unclear. Without that, the reform measure cannot be debated in Congress. It could turn into the big argument that will sooner or later bury the referendum, whether because the Electoral Council says in the next few months that the limits have been violated and the debate cannot continue or because the court believes that this is about a problem that cannot be rectified. Some have underestimated this argument, but it is an issue that touches the most sensitive fibers of democracy: respect for the financing limits demanded by law is to guarantee that a so-called citizen initiative is not manipulated by the interests of a few. If there weren’t that filter, it would be possible that in the future, for example, an anonymous initiative could seek to reform the Constitution in order to accept business models such as those by DMG, the company at the center of the pyramid scheme scandal. “The problem of financing is not of secondary importance, it is the way to avoid that the torrents of money crush democracy,” says the former Constitutional Court judge Alfredo Beltrán.
Secondly, although mathematically the time remaining could be enough to move the referendum forward, the slow rhythm of politics does not foretell much life ahead. If in the House of Representatives the debate lasted three months, in the Senate the most optimistic forecast is that it will be approved by June. If for the political reform which enabled the first reelection took the Constitutional Court eight months for its decision, today, with six of the nine judges recently named, it will be difficult for them to make a decision in half of that time. If the decision is a positive one, the referendum will be called, and that will also take time. In the 2003 referendum, four months elapsed from the date the decision was announced and the vote at the ballot box. It would really require a miracle so that the most optimistic of the scenarios could happen and that the referendum would be voted on in November of this year. It cannot be discarded that the government will call extra sessions in February to try to speed up the legislation, but that won’t either guarantee that the deadlines will be met.
The obstacle of the supposed procedural irregularities that have occured is not less of a problem. The financing irregularities have already been mentioned, but there is also the problem of the change of date from 2014 to 2010 because already in one of the debates that change was voted down. There was also an irregularity in the decree calling for extra sessions in Congress that the president issued before midnight on December 16th when Congress was in session, against the norms that require that it be done when Congress is in recess. Senator Juan Fernando Cristo of the Liberal Party said, “The act of sending the decree at midnight had little impact at the time but is like that of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic: the message from the president was ‘nobody is leaving until you vote on this.’” The new Constitutional Court will have its baptism by fire with the referendum. It will have to decide if those irregularities, and others that the opposition is carefully monitoring, are enough to bring it down.
The fourth and last obstacle of the referendum is that of the vote at the ballot box. Seven million people will be needed to vote, and of them, more than half must vote affirmatively. With a president who doesn’t fall below 70% in popularity in polls and who got almost 7.4 million votes in 2004 this would seem to be easy to achieve. But one thing is to vote for the president and another for a referendum, even more so when the number of people who support reelection has fallen 14 points and today is just above 50 percent. The interest of some Uribistas to have the referendum on the same date as two other referenda – the right to drinkable water and life sentences for child abusers – and thus guarantee that more Colombians are motivated to go to the polls, does not seem possible because neither of those two referendum proposals have even begun to be debated in Congress.
Facing the evidence that the referendum has a path too tortuous ahead of it, the locomotive that is pulling along the reelection will try to put the referendum to the side and attempt to promote the reelection in 2010 by constitutional reform. It would not be about saying yes or no to an initiative supported by 4.3 million Colombians, but that each one of the members of Congress would be assuming in a direct way the responsibility of giving the president the go-ahead for his reelection.
That is, it would be taking the path that promoters of the reelection avoided. They appealed to citizen signatures as a way to undermine the arguments of a previous Constitutional Court ruling that said the president can only be reelected immediately one time because otherwise the separation and balance of powers created by the Constitution would be shattered. Their reasoning was that if it was the people who are calling for a new mandate of Uribe, there would be no “substitution of the Constitution” like the court warned about in its decision.
If the referendum has a very difficult path, the constitutional reform in the Congress could be equally as difficult if not more so. It needs to be passed by both houses of Congress twice, that is, eight debates. At this stage in the game, the government has shown weakness in its management of Congress. If you add to that many members of Congress don’t like the second reelection, it seems even more difficult.
But the power of the government’s steamroller should not be dismissed. It can’t be discarded, for example, that by December 2009 the constitutional reform which permits the reelection will have been approved. The calculation that some Uribistas make is that with the approval of the Congress, Uribe will present his name as a candidate and will be reelected in May 2010. Because, unlike the referendum, the constitutional reform by Congress does not require a prior review by the Constitutional Court. Nevertheless, the calculations may fail because it is obvious that there will be a barrage of lawsuits against the reform and that the Constitutional Court, even though it will have only about five months, could put the brakes on a twelve year presidential term, a term length that in any democracy in the world with a presidential system such as in Colombia is unthinkable.
The obstacles for reelection are not limited, however, to just legal or legislative mechanics. Since July support for the presidential reelection in 2010 has been in freefall. Support has dropped from 74 to 54 percent according to the latest results from a poll by Invamer-Gallup. The growing disenchantment with the possibility of an Uribe third term is not limited to Colombia. Conservative media that have supported the president in the past like the Wall Street Journal and the Economist have compared him recently to Latin American caudillos. The Economist said last week that for the new Obama administration the reelectionist referendum of Uribe could be compared to what President Hugo Chávez has promoted in Venezuela. According to the Economist he “risks looking as autocratic as his neighbor.” It is a comparison that does not help the Colombian government’s interests in the United States.
In addition to the evident difficulties of moving forward with the reelection -the procedural irregularities, the erratic support in the Congress, the skepticism of the public- there is one that possibly generates the greatest cost: the paralysis of the government’s administration. By turning the reelection into its top priority, other fundamental matters have become relegated to the back burner like financial reform and the law for victims of violence. This very justice reform labeled as historic by Minister of the Interior Fabio Valencia, was buried by the referendum. Everyday decisions such as decreeing the minimum wage become complex because their impact on the referendum must be gauged. The creation of obligatory savings funds or the increase of the coverage of programs such as Familias en Accion, a social welfare program targeting low-income families, once a praised program, are seen as petty cash to finance the prolongation of the Uribe mandate.
What is extraordinary about all of this is that it would be understandable if it were in accordance with Machiavelli’s doctrine that the end justifies the means. In other words, that it isn’t absurd to perform bureaucratic tricks in order to maintain oneself in power. But what does not seem sensible is to assume this political and personal wear and tear for the president, and the gigantic cost for the country, and not achieve their goal. That is the path down which Colombia is heading.
If Uribe, who has undoubtedly transformed the country, had not have embarked on this reelectionist adventure, he would be finishing his eight-year term with the adoration of Uribistas and the respect of the anti-Uribistas. But by having stepped off his pedestal and succumbing to messianic temptations, the current situation is one of criticism among his followers and indignation among his opponents. The process that is currently taking place in the country does not correspond to the nature of the Colombian political process or to what would seem to be the nature of Uribe. During his entire public life, he has been characterized as a serious and straightforward man. His recent attitude as a banana republic caudillo could undermine his legacy.