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| 9/9/2009 12:00:00 AM

What’s next for Colombia?

With Uribe’s third term in sight, Colombia is going down an unknown path, never before seen in the political history of the country.

What’s next for Colombia? What’s next for Colombia?
The Colombian Congress approved the referendum that opens the door for president Uribe’s third term. Contrary to what most had predicted—including this magazine—the country is facing a new political reality. A reality that is unfamiliar to 200 years of Colombian political tradition, one that differed from other Latin American countries where leaders tended to prolong their stay in power.

The referendum is not technically approved yet, but the current political dynamic of the country indicates that the it will make it to the Constitutional Court early next year and it will be up to the top justices of the country to say whether Colombians can elect Uribe III. Nobody questions the President’s popularity or the merits he has rightfully accumulated during his administration. But beyond surveys and polls, there is a growing fear of the consequences that can come from a single leader’s rule for such a long period of time. It is not just about altering the balance of power, cardinal for a democracy, but it is the direct path towards “caudillismo”, unknown to Colombians until now. After seven years in power, Alvaro Uribe is already the Colombian president who has served, uninterruptedly, most time as head of state. The only comparisons worth making are with Simon Bolivar and Rafael Nuñez. Besides serving long terms as presidents, these leaders have more in common. They were liberal at the start of their political careers but with time turned into conservatives who ruled with a strong hand.

It must be said that Uribe is respecting the political norms as he tries to prolong his rule. At the start, he gave his back to the referendum and hoped it would be approved without government intervention. When this didn’t happen, he had to recur to every type of political treachery known in Colombian politics to get Congress to approve the bill. Now, it is up to the Constitutional Court to decide whether the amount and caliber of the vices are sufficient to invalidate the bill. The irregularities abound and the debate that will begin in the next couple of days will define if they are simple or mortal sins.

The bottom line is that the Congress approved the referendum with the usual tactics, those the Executive has always used in the country to get any project approved: clientelism, tit for tat, giving away government positions in exchange for favors and signing contracts to benefit allies.

In that sense, it’s politics as usual. The one thing that is new is that this time it's being done in favor of the one person who is still head of state, who is still in power.

One thing is to promise favors in order to approve a tributary reform, but quite another is doing this to change the country's Constitution and approve a third presidencial term. But the most delicate part Is yet to start. It would be if the government, set on the approval of the bill at any costs, decides to take part in severe and illegal practices. In this category one may include the government's proposal to lower the electoral census, which means fewer votes would be needed to pass the referendum. As it is today, the electoral census includes 29.400.000 people and next year it could reach 31.000.000. For the referendum to be approved, 25% of the census must vote, which means that more than 7.35 million Colombians would have to cast their vote. According to the government's proposal, only four or five million votes would be needed. Why? The census must be depurated and the information on the deceased must be eliminated. That is legitimate. They also argue that the abstentionists--a great majority-- must be excluded from the census. This would be unscrupulous; just because a person decided to not participate in the voting this doesn't imply that the person doesn’t exist. If the government truly wants to tread such a dangerous path, it would be starting a new era with irregularities unknown in traditional clientelism. Lowering the census is simply an abuse of power.

Although the referendum's path seems trouble-free as it leaves Congress, the process must meet very tough deadlines. Nilson Pinilla, president of the Constitutional Court, has already said the court will take at least five months to reach a verdict. The electoral authorities have said they would need three or four months to organize the voting of the referendum. Following said times, Colombian citizens would be voting for or against the bill in May. Yet, the government wants the referendum to take place earlier and is looking for ways to pack the referendum with two other referendums: one that has to deal with water and another one about life prison for child abusers. If the government is successful it would save more than 200.000 million pesos, probably more people would go out to vote, and would neutralize the opposition because little can be said against the other two referendums.

And here the referendum would go against the country's electoral calendar. The law forces the presidential candidates to sign up by march 12, 2010. Electoral authorities have said that if Uribe runs for a third term, the referendum must be voted by February at the latest. At first glance, there is not enough time. Yet, this doesn't mean the referendum is dead, not at all. In the past days, political events in the country had shown that political logic triumphs over judicial forms.

Until the referendum is cleared, the political climate in Colombia will be ambiguous and lethargic. Another point Is that the law of Guarantees, which is designed to assure other candidates that the president will not use his position to his advantage, has not been even discussed.

The uncertainty is especially upsetting to the pro-Uribe candidates. Some, like Juan Manuel Santos (former minister of Defense) and Andres Felipe Arias (former minister of Agriculture) don't know what to do because they have publicly declared they would drop out of the race and support the president if he in fact runs for a third term. Others, like Noemi Sanin (former ambassador in London) are also harmed because they will have to wait months to see if they can present themselves in the public eye as "Uribe's Heirs."
Juan Manuel Santos's current political position is quite a paradox. Since he resigned as Minister of Defense he tops the polls as the favorite to fill the presidency after Uribe leaves. He is also the natural leader of the Partido de la U, a political party that supports Uribe and that has reasons to believe it will do well in the next electoral season. Yet, he can't do anything. Some of his followers are currently promoting a slogan that reads "If It's not Uribe, it's Juan Manuel". Santos has been entirely committed to the referendum, he even met with party members and convinced them to vote favorably. And he has been coherent: " If Uribe is not a candidate, I will pursue the presidency, that is a pact I will uphold" he declared the day he resigned as Minister of Defense.

Andres Felipe Arias is another candidate who has little space for maneuvering. When the referendum was approved, many of the congressmen that were backing him froze. Between Uribe and 'Uribito' [little Uribe], as he is known locally, everybody prefers the king and not the prince. Besides, Arias is as at crossroads. If he wins his party's (Conservative) candidacy, he will surely have to drop it and join his mentor, Uribe, if he decides to run. And once again, the conservatives would end up with no candidate.

Sergio Fajardo, Medellin's former mayor, has insisted he is neither pro or against Uribe and has been able to garner votes on both sides of the spectrum. His political strategy will continue in the midst of a growing political polarization. His position as an independent candidate works well for him. If Uribe seeks a third term--and Juan Manuel and Uribito drop out of the race--Fajardo is the second most-optioned candidate. And if the re-election bill fails to pass, Fajardo is also positioned as a solid candidate for the final sprint towards the presidency.

Things are not easy for Noemi Sanin. She has publicly stated she will continue with her candidacy regardless if Uribe runs or not. Yet, she suffers from the Pro-Uribe syndrome: if the president effectively runs, her candidacy turns pale in comparison. The original product is always easier to sell. Noemi has a long political career, charisma and popularity, that is undeniable. But she arrived late to the race and her first challenge is to steal the conservative party's candidacy from Uribito, who has been working on this since the beginning of the year.

The opposition candidates, paradoxically, haven't trembled as much with the referendum's approval in Congress. Even though Uribe's possible candidacy dampens the whole political scene, the Polo Democrático and the Liberal Party have strengthened their identity. Especially the Liberal Party, where a process of unity undertaken by party leader and fierce Uribe critic Cesar Gaviria has proven fruitful. Both opposition parties understand they will have to work hard, with or without re-election, to compete with the Pro-Uribe sentiment.

In the short term, Colombia will suffer from uncertainty until Uribe speaks out about his desire to prolong his rule. Meanwhile, the political parties will reshuffle their players, the editorialists will choose sides for or against the referendum, and the academia will debate over the true position of the mayorities in a democracy.

But in the midst of never-ending news and a heated political environment, the country is sliding towards growing polarization between those who want Uribe to stay and those who want him gone.

Semana International delivers news about Colombia in English. Find more in our home.

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