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| 3/16/2009 12:00:00 AM

Uribe’s allies enter the fray

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe dispatched his key lieutenants set up a powerful new political party for the March 2010 congressional elections. What is the strategy?

Uribe’s allies enter the fray Last week, the Minister of Environment, Juan Lozano; the Peace Commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, and the presidential advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria, resigned. Andrés Felipe Arias, former Minister of Agriculture, and ex senator Rodrigo Rivera are also part of Uribe's strategy.
Until now, the most devoted Uribe supporters, including the president himself, have been convinced that the best way to continue his government’s agenda was for Uribe to stay at least four more years as president. His closest followers continue to believe that.
But this week he revealed a new strategy, that without discarding the re-election, could be an alternative for him to stay in power if, at the end of this year, after going through all the procedures, he does not get the legal go-ahead to run for re-election.

The government has taken the initiative of setting up a new political party. The instructions are clear: they have to win Congress. The goal is an ambitious one. The new Uribista party wants to elect 60 senators and 120 representatives. With control of the Congress, Uribe could rest easily because anyone who replaces him as president who attempts to stray from the Uribe agenda would face an Uribe steamroller in the legislative branch.

Notwithstanding the re-election issue, it is clear that a leader as popular as Uribe aspires to create his own party. As a congressperson said, “A powerful party would serve Uribe offensively in the case he becomes a former president or defensively if he remains as president.” If he is able to achieve his goal he would become the first leader in Colombian history to gain a parliamentary majority with a party created tailor-made to him.

Two photos released this week at the exit of the Casa de Nariño presidential palace that his official spokespersons sent to the media are telling. Uribe did something that he had not done is his six years of government. He went to the door of the presidential palace to say goodbye to two of his most loyal allies: on Wednesday to his minister of environment Juan Lozano and on Thursday to his peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo. He gave them a political blessing with calculated sentences, that they go “help elect a Congress of excellence.”

With that gesture, the president revealed that he is the field marshal behind the troops whose mission is to win Congress.

There is a big difference between this and what happened four years ago. Then, on the eve of the elections, Uribe also dispatched some of his most loyal supporters, like Fabio Echeverri and Ricardo Galán. But the difference is that this time he is disbanding his inner circle not so that they prepare for his re-election campaign but rather that they dedicate themselves to campaign for the Congress.

The change in emphasis cannot be interpreted that now Uribe has more faith in his chances in Congress than he does for the re-election. It would be naïve to see it that way. At the end of the day, in both cases he is trying to get the same thing: votes. The more he sets his eyes on Congress, the better for Uribe in the case that the referendum and re-election are approved.

Trojan horse

The president’s interest that the strategy goes well is very clear. Uribe not only sent to battle one of his most hardened lieutenants, peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, who had not been allowed to resign from his position, but also minister Juan Lozano who wasn’t planning on leaving the government who, after a three hour long meeting, was told by Uribe that where he was needed was in Congress.

With regards to the departure also announced this week of José Obdulio Gaviria, one of Uribe’s closest advisors, is also significant because he is symbolic of the inner circle of Uribe. However, several sources consulted for this article believe that his exit is not part of the Uribe strategy and he is leaving on his own accord. In contrast to what happened with Restrepo and Lozano, Uribe did not stand at the doorway to give Obdulio his blessing.

For now everyone is clear about the instructions of the president. He wants just one party. That party will have new faces on the ballot like they did four years ago when the U Party was started with Gina Parody and Marta Lucía Ramírez. Finally the party should be diverse, that is why they are trying to tempt two congresspeople from the left-leaning Polo party.

Perhaps the most difficult task to achieve is to accommodate everyone in one single party. The idea from the presidential palace was to make a new party that would be called Primero Colombia (Colombia First) to start from zero with Uribe’s approval and without having the burden of a name poisoned by the para-politics scandal. But the heads of the U Party who are on the side of the minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos, are unwilling to break away from the U Party. This week they left that clear by proposing other candidates besides Luis Carlos Restrepo for the presidency of the party. In the end it could be that he will be named to lead but they want to make it clear that although they are still Uribe supporters it is Juan Manuel Santos who leads the party, not Uribe’s inner circle.

The most likely scenario then is that the U Party will continue but it will take over many of the small Uribista parties that are on the endangered list, simultaneously forming a new Uribista party in order to offer a political home to those who did not feel comfortable in the U Party.

If that strategy works it could become an acid test for other parties. In the Liberal Party, for example, Rodrigo Rivera has shown great admiration for Uribe and says that there are 34 congresspeople who signed a communiqué of support for the policy of democratic security at the most recent party summit. In Cambio Radical, Representative Roy Barreras has counted at least 20 congresspeople from his party who are Uribe supporters.

In those two cases the Uribe factions do not discard taking over those parties. On this theory, Rivera would end up head of the Liberal Party and Lozano head of Cambio Radical. But that, for now won’t be anything more than a possibility if one takes into consideration that leading those two parties are two political heavyweights: César Gaviria and Germán Vargas Llleras who will not allow themselves to be pushed aside. In ideological and party discipline terms, the most likely scenario is that the Uribistas will end up gravitating to the U Party or to Primero Colombia.

In any case, the scent of a coup d’état in the parties can be smelled. It is such that on Thursday Vargas Lleras said, “If it is about going to conspire in the meeting, it would be better if you didn’t go,” referring to the Cambio Radical meeting that was held days ago. “You can go anytime you want. But we will not stand for Trojan horses within the party,” he added.

It is just the first chapter in the story of political strategies that will be presented bit by bit to the country until next March, exactly a year away, when the new Congress is elected and it is known for sure whether Uribismo won the day again.



Gustavo Petro: ¿Esperanza o miedo?

Gustavo Petro ha sido un fenómeno electoral, pero tiene a muchos sectores del país con los pelos de punta. ¿Cómo se explica y hasta dónde puede llegar?

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