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| 10/21/2008 12:00:00 AM

Is the sun setting on Uribe?

Why the remaining two years of President Álvaro Uribe’s term will undoubtedly be the most difficult of his government.

Is the sun setting on Uribe? Is the sun setting on Uribe?
Álvaro Uribe’s support in the polls is unprecedented. Since he became president in August 2002, his favorability numbers have never fallen below 65%. Unlike with his predecessors and defying logic, his level of support has increased over time. The latest survey by Invamer-Gallup in September showed that eight out of ten approve of his performance. During these six years, the president’s popularity has been a means and an end at the same time. A means because it has been used to control both allies and opponents. And an end because it is the only indicator that has mattered in the presidential palace.

The government not only doesn’t hesitate in highlighting those numbers, but it also uses them as its strongest defense against any criticism. It is a 21st century application of the motto “the voice of the people, is the voice of God.” Or, as the Minister of the Interior and Justice Fabio Valencia Cossio said to SEMANA: “it is a feat that a person such as the President Uribe after six years has the highest popularity in Latin America. That means that he is doing things well.” .

However, in the last few weeks the effectiveness of that strategy –of cashing in on Uribe’s image- seems to be reaching its limits. As in the law of diminishing returns, each percentage point of the president’s favorability no longer produces the same effect: not in the president’s coalition nor among his opponents.

The facts speak for themselves. The president was not able to persuade his coalition members of the Senate’s first commission to vote in favor of the justice reform. It wasn’t just any piece of legislation. According to the Minister, its approval would have been a watershed moment for the judicial history of Colombia. Even Uribe’s critics called this a fundamental aspect of the government’s strategy to help coalition supporters who are being investigated because of the “para-politics” scandal.

That reform was such a high priority that in those three months Uribe put out all the stops in his now traditional Palace breakfast meetings. Despite the president’s efforts it didn’t work. Alleging all sorts of conflicts of interests, coalition senators refused to pass the legislation. This rebellion forced Uribe to issue a statement on Monday Oct. 13th informing of the retraction of the legislation due to a lack of consensus among his coalition. It wasn’t the only hit he took. On Thursday dozens of coalition representatives, allied with Liberal Party members as well as Polo members of the lower house, did not approve next year’s budget because it didn’t include the earmarks that they wanted. The pleas of Minister of Finance Oscar Ivan Zuluaga were useless as he watched dumbfounded the mass rebellion of the representatives. For a government led by the most popular leader in the continent to be unable to achieve quorum among his majority coalition is not exactly a sign of strength.

With regards to his management of the judicial strike he has also shown weakness. If there is something that distinguished the Uribe administration in its first term, was its ability to put out fires of possible labor or social conflicts with the blink of an eye. Thanks to Uribe’s negotiating skills, along with his firmness, the government made unthinkable reforms like the transformation of dozens of state entities, including one that was considered untouchable: Ecopetrol, the state oil company. He was able to do that before the astonished looks of the powerful union, the USO, which had intimidated previous governments.

But the Uribe government in 2008 not only allowed the judicial strike to go on for more than 45 days, but also had to take exceptional measures such as declaring emergency powers. Although Asonal, the justice workers union, finally called off the strike, the cost for the budget is not insignificant: 150 billion COP (about $68 million USD) and a commitment to review the matter next May. More strikes are coming: the Registraduria -the national registrar’s office-, the DIAN -the tax authority-, the Superintendencia notariado -the office of the superintendent of notaries and registers- and workers unions among others.

If in the public sector there are demands, in the southeast of the country labor and social unrest has not died down. The sugar workers strike which began in August continues unresolved and now threatens to unite with strikes of indigenous peoples.

The administration’s shock of having to deal with such political and social rebellion is almost understandable. The polls show the president’s popularity but not the effectiveness of his administration.

A lot has been written and speculated about why Uribe is so beloved by the vast majority of Colombians. According to Jorge Londoño of Invamer-Gallup, the president has two strengths: his credibility and his decision to confront head on all problems. He is seen as a real ship captain. But that in itself isn’t enough. He has benefited from a perception of well-being that his six years in office have created. On the question of whether Colombia was better off before he entered power in 2002, only the most radical and strident opponents would say yes.

In politics as in life, a little bit of luck helps and Uribe has had a lot of good fortune with the economy. He took power when the worst of the 1999 financial crisis had passed and after the administration of Andrés Pastrana had adopted necessary but unpopular measures to face the debacle. Although undoubtedly his policy of democratic security just as much as his measures to attract investment were key to achieve unprecedented growth, the external environment also was very favorable. In these six years there has been a global economic boom and export prices of the main Colombian products- oil, coal and coffee- have risen like never before.

That combination of factors has helped Uribe sustain 80% popularity in opinion polls. But, as it has become increasingly clear, applause and cheer from the stands may not be enough in an uncertain and much less manageable future at home as well as abroad.

For one, the revolt in the coalition is growing. On Friday Cambio Radical, a pillar of the government coalition, announced its support for a referendum which would allow for re-election, but only in 2014. That was a signal that former Senator Germán Vargas Lleras and head of Cambio Radical, is aiming to run for president in 2010. In the U Party, it is not a guarded secret that its founder, the Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos is also interested in that post. At the presidential palace they are afraid that several U Party congressmen and women would rather support a constitutional reform that would allow the president to run for another term, but only in 2014.

To the internal challenges there is now another question mark for Uribe: will the United States continue to be back his administration 100 percent. For the first time Colombia was an issue in a presidential debate in the United States. Before television cameras the Republican candidate John McCain accused his rival of opposing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia who is “the best ally that we have in the region”. The Democrat Barack Obama defended himself with the argument that, according to him, “in Colombia union leaders are being killed by murderers”. And although his criticism is unfair- no government has done more than Uribe’s to protect them- it is worrying that the first idea that came to Obama- his top of mind- was not “treaty with an ally country”, but rather “murder of union members”. Clearly, if Obama is president, relations with Colombia will be of a different nature.

Perhaps the greatest threat for the president in his 22 months left in office could come from something out of his control: the global economic slowdown. The government has already been forced to reduce its growth forecast for 2009 from 5 to 3.5 %. Construction and manufacturing which were spurring GDP growth (at a rate of 10 %) is stalling and unemployment is projected to rise. Tax receipts will be lower than projected as well as export revenues, given the recession in the U.S. and the crisis in Venezuela because of the steep drop in the price of oil.

For six years Uribe has had a prolonged and exceptional honeymoon. Much of it is thanks to his work. Democratic security has been very successful with its original objectives of weakening the FARC, recovering control in towns across the country, and giving confidence to the Colombian people. He has also succeeded in attracting foreign investment at amounts never before seen. Colombia is a different country than the one that received Uribe as president in 2002 and recognition of this is reflected in his high favorability in polls. The question is whether this support for the government will be maintained in an environment of higher unemployment and economic uncertainty. Or if, on the contrary, as has happened with all leaders, the sun will also set on Uribe’s reign.



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