SEMANA/Re-election | 10/14/2008 12:00:00 AM
Theater of the absurd
Everyday there are more legal strategies that open the door for the re-election of president Alvaro Uribe. The latest gimmick makes him a senator in 2010 and president in 2014. But re-election is becoming more difficult to achieve.
There have been so many changes to the script, changes to the coded answers and changes to the players, that now no one dares even placing a bet on how this story will end. Almost a year after beginning the rush for a referendum, and after half a year of a debate over political reform, today the country still does not have an answer to the simplest of questions: if the president wants to be re-elected again or not.
Or if he wants to seek re-election in 2010 or in 2014. Or to add to the confusion, now there is a possibility that Uribe could not only be re-elected in 2010 via referendum but also in 2014, via political reform that is already underway. In addition, among the possible outcomes is that his mandate could extend until 2019 (a congressman has proposed that presidential terms be changed from four to five years).
Theater of the absurd is defined by stories that seem to lack meaning, repetitive dialogues and a lack of dramatic sequence that suddenly creates a dreamlike atmosphere. In Colombia each week brings about abrupt changes to the re-election story. A new protagonist arrives on stage weekly and strange turns of events alternately make the public laugh or cry.
With the re-election, as in the theater of the absurd, what happens each week does not seem to have any logic with what happens the following week. One week the president’s congressional allies present the referendum and the next the president tells them not to. One week the president asks them to come to an agreement about who will be his successor and a week later the news is that he will not only be re-elected in 2010 but also in 2014.
At the same time, those who want the leading role have to audition alone in front of the mirror, like sad mimes. Former Senator Germán Vargas Lleras, who has waited all his life for this moment, fears running for president as long as Uribe remains undecided and thus has dedicated himself to running a pseudo-clandestine electoral campaign. The Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, who is also waiting in line, does not know whether to resign or not. Two-time presidential candidate Noemí Sanín, watching the action from the embassy in London, looks at her watch to see if this theater of the absurd will ever end. Finally the opposition is not able to put together a viable candidate to position themselves as an alternative.
This whole theatrical staging, in addition to its lack of seriousness, also has a profound effect on the country’s daily politics. Important problems that need solutions are not being addressed. Serious discussion of any sort is impossible. The judicial strike has gone on for weeks in the middle of political inertia. Certain public figures, like the president of the Colombian Senate, Hernán Andrade, seem more like unscrupulous spokespersons for the government than leaders of a respectable legislative power.
Even the president’s allies are beginning to tire of this give and take. Vargas Lleras, who had resisted making public comments since his return to Colombia a month ago, recently broke his silence. “They are making progress in conversations so that the political reform will include the possibility that the president could be re-elected in 2014, and the referendum that would allow re-election in 2010 would be not be discarded. It isn’t possible to keep both options simultaneously, because then we would be authorizing re-election in 2010 and also in 2014,” he said in an interview with María Isabel Rueda, a leading journalist.
César Gaviria, former Colombian president and current head of the Liberal Party, said: “We need to know what the government is up to, if they want re-election in 2014 or in 2010.”
Eliminating barriers to re-election would change the history of democracy in Colombia. It would create a precedent that could turn the country into something very different from what it has been for almost 200 years of history as a republic.
But finally, does Uribe want to be re-elected in 2010 or in 2014, or both? What is really happening?
First you have to take into account that right now two acts of the theater are taking place: the referendum and political reform.
First act: political reform
If political reform is approved, the probability that the president could run in 2014 would become a strong possibility. This reform seems to have the fewest obstacles. Last Tuesday it was approved in the commission of the House of Representatives, thus passing the first of eight debates. Its path through the Senate will not be a rough one because, unlike judicial reform, none of the senators is concerned of any possible conflict of interest.
However, all kinds of questions have arisen. Some criticize the reform because it does not have the support of the opposition parties -the left-leaning Polo and the Liberal Party have withdrawn from the debate. It also may have procedural problems because the referendum should have been considered first because it is an initiative presented by the people.
In any case, if the reform fails, there is a plan B for re-election in 2014. It is legislation, supported by Uribe, which was presented by congressman Roy Barreras of Cambio Radical, a party friendly towards the president. This legislation has just one article that states that reelection by Uribe could only take place in 2014.
Furthermore it says that former presidents, by their own right, can occupy a seat in the Senate. “I can’t imagine Uribe leisurely working at his farm (“El Ubérrimo”) when he could say so much from the Senate floor,” explains Barreras.
Second act: the referendum
The most complicated act of this great theater of the absurd is the referendum, which is beginning to seem less and less viable. To begin with, even if the article which authorizes a third consecutive presidential period is approved, there is a paragraph in Article 197 of the Constitution that actually limits the president to one re-election only.
There is also the possibility that event the “Uribistas” will dispense of the referendum. Its promoter, Luis Guillermo Giraldo, has been rather quiet lately and even the president has asked to retract it. Add to that that the referendum proponents haven’t even been able to start the referendum process in Congress. “In the Casa de Nariño (presidential palace) they haven´t said whether they want to change the referendum question so that there is no doubt that it is for 2010 or for 2014,” says a congressional source.
A few days before the Colombian people went to the polls in 2006 to elect a new president, journalist Darío Arizmendi asked then candidate Uribe, “Finally, Mr. President, how do you envision Colombia in four years?” Uribe answered him, “Darío, we are working for ‘Vision Colombia 2019’”. In the middle of this theater of the absurd, it will be difficult for him to achieve that.