POLITICS | 7/3/2010 12:00:00 AM
Everybody is happy with the national unity proposal of president-elect Juan Manuel Santos, but it may produce some disparities in the political system.
That is the case of the Liberal Party, which was in opposition during the eight years of President Álvaro Uribe’s government. Before the run-off election, almost all the congressmen from this movement had joined Santos. And so did former President César Gaviria, one of the toughest opponents of Uribe. To avoid four more years in the opposition -or perhaps eight- candidate and former head of the party, Rafael Pardo, decided to reach to an agreement with the President-elect. The liberal bloc, as expected, enthusiastically agreed to join the national unity that Santos has proposed. Only a handful of senators refused to accept it.
The liberal commitment to Santos is significant, because it means that their relation has improved, since both had some trouble when the President-elect was Defense minister.
It was also very important the meeting that Santos held with Gustavo Petro, the former leftist candidate of the Polo Party and perhaps his most conspicuous political opponent. Petro had sent him a letter announcing his intention to carry out a "consultation" with his future government. And previously in some of his speeches, Juan Manuel Santos had praised Petro’s ideas.
The meeting, however, created a storm in the Polo. The chairman of the party, Clara López Obregón, who had been his vice presidential formula, dismissed the initiative. Petro said that it didn’t mean that he would not be critical with the government or that he might join it.
With the Green Party also happened something similar. The former candidate Antanas Mockus said that he didn’t like the word “opposition" and the truth is that from the ideological point of view his political project is closer to Santos than anyone could possibly imagine. The main differences that both have is the way they understand politics. Mockus has said that his movement will support the good things and critic the bad ones. The greens have considered a ‘shadow cabinet’ like in other countries. Nobody really knows what will happen next, but it can be expected a soft but dialectical opposition.
Juan Manuel Santos, in shortly, will begin his government with a political opposition almost nonexistent. With the support of the U Party, the Conservatives, the Liberal Party and Cambio Radical, the new government counts on a coalition that represents about 80 percent of Congress. It is possible to predict an opposition much less polarized over the next four years.
The absence of opposition has two explanations. On one hand, the new President proposed the national unity in order to have high levels of governance. But perhaps the most important reason is the electoral fade of the parties that didn’t make part of president Uribe's coalition.
To this it’s necessary to add that in Colombia the political culture despises the idea of opposition. In France, in Britain or the United States, it is well accepted that the party that loses the election takes on the mission of overseeing the government to moderate its ideological bias and seek public support to become majority in the next election. In Colombia, the losers can join the government and the opposition is usually a moderate one.
Huge national agreements have already been made in the past. None of the previous, however, had reached the extreme levels of coverage as the current. History has shown that the pursue for unanimism generates short-term enthusiasm, but that it can also be a source for further headaches. Democracies need pluralist views as well as the political space for every interest, ideology and project to be expressed.
In Colombia, the National Front (1958-1974) blocked every chance both for marginal and new social sectors to participate in the government. Held between the two major parties at the time, the Liberal and the Conservative, this agreement kept governmental activity exclusively for themselves. As a result, those excluded often opted for illegal methods in order to participate. Several analysts of Colombian history and politics agree that there is a relationship between the uprising of former guerrillas back in the 60’s and the blocking promoted by those involved in the National Front agreement. At that time, the president Alfonso López Michelsen criticized this system. And years later, in the 80’s, presidential candidate and later a martyr Luis Carlos Galán whip lashed the two-party system. Both politicians returned to their traditional party, the Liberal. López eventually became president and Galán was murdered by the mafia just a few months before achieving it.
It was only until 1991, with the new Constitution, that everything started giving a twist: Colombian politics opened the way for new players, rules changed and the two-party system was finally buried. The turn then was for small emergent parties, independent expressions and fragmentation, which weakened the system and produced guerrilla’s strengthening, particularly FARC’s. This new picture led to electorate’s right-winging tendencies and to president Uribe’s election.
During Álvaro Uribe’s government, the Executive Head of State concentrated power way out of proportion and Colombia’s counterweight state system weakened. After a brief constitution reform, the re-election and the appearance of a strong pro-government movement, the U Party, Uribe found a clear way for co-opting most of the state’s organs that aren’t normally controlled by the president. Among them are the Congress, the board of Colombia’s National bank, the National Television Commission, and the Judiciary Supreme Council. Still independent organs such as the Justice Supreme Court provoked rows and crashes among national institutions.
Juan Manuel Santos inherited this new form of executive power. It is too early to know how is going to be his political project and the path that the opposition will take depends on what might happen with the national unity.
As President he will be responsible for designing a system based on that unit. Santos will have to define the relationship between political support and bureaucratic establishment. So far the appointments he has made have been well received, but leave the impression of an independent attitude from political commitments. Some members of the coalition that became part of the bureaucratic expectations don’t agree with that idea. The nature of the agreements that will develop within the national unity will mark Colombian politics during the next years. These can take different forms, some constructive, some dangerous. Among the riskier ones are the creation of a Colombian version of the Mexican PRI party, or a new National Front.
Another would be the 'Argentinization' of the political system. After the discredited government of the Radical Party, headed by President Fernando de la Rua, -which led to his resignation in 2001- the presidential dispute in Argentina has been limited to the features of the only major political branch, Peronism. In the recent Colombian elections, almost all the candidates were followers of Uribe, and it was demonstrated that it is not easy to seduce the electorate with speeches different from the democratic security policy. But that is the portrait of a very specific political situation, marked by guerrilla violence, and it would be early to predict whether ‘Santismo’ or ‘Uribismo’ will mark the Colombian politics so that the future Presidents should only come from the U party.
The unity Santos talks about has two faces: exclusion and conciliation. Unfortunately, the political history of Colombia has been the reflection of exclusion. In a country with a political culture characterized by polarization, mistrust and lack of consensus, national unity can also be an opportunity to see if the country is able to make an agreement.
The flag of unit that Santos upholds should be an agreement on some specific and crucial issues, but it should also guarantee a place for the opposition. Something similar to the Moncloa Pact, which was the agreement between the government, parties and unions that sealed the Spanish transition to democracy in 1977. If at that time, after the Franco dictatorship, the Spanish reached agreements on economic policy, judicial independence and freedom of the press, in Colombia is essential to reach consensus on issues like national security, the problem of land, justice and ‘reparation’ for the victims of violence.
It is healthy to have a national consensus on some fundamental issues such as defense of the Constitution and relations with Ecuador and Venezuela, but it is also healthy that the parties disagree on other points and build their own proposals to go independently to the next elections. The lack of opposition can be a fertile ground for corruption. A key task of the opposition is to verify how public resources are spent. A weak opposition is not good for Colombian democracy, influenced by mafia, ‘parapolitics’, embezzlements and illegal spying. That is why it needs a strong opposition, and the press and the justice are not enough.
It is too early to know what will be the result of the national unity project. Rhetoric has been so far very abstract. Juan Manuel Santos professes democratic convictions and it would be as exaggerated as unfair to anticipate today a crisis that has not happened yet. But it is not crazy to turn on the alarms.