Apr 27

With all the usual caveats about polling in Colombia, just look at this chart of all the polls I’ve seen in the past 30 days or so. They show a steady but mounting momentum in favor of former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus.

The latest Ipsos-Napoleón Franco poll, released late yesterday, gives Mockus the lead for the first time. Mockus overtakes the main “successor” of popular president Álvaro Uribe, Juan Manuel Santos, who a month ago was the untouchable frontrunner.

(Click on the image to see a bigger version.)

The polls show Mockus taking little support from Santos. Instead, the quirky former mayor’s surge began in early April after another popular mayor, Sergio Fajardo of Medellín, abandoned his struggling presidential campaign to join Mockus’ ticket. The unusual display of unity resonated with Colombian public opinion and made Mockus’ campaign far more viable.

Can anyone honestly say they saw this coming a month ago?

Mar 18

Here’s how the results of Sunday’s legislative elections look, with nearly all ballots counted. The numbers don’t yet total up to the total number of legislators in each house, because the counting is not complete.

It appears that pro-Uribe parties will continue to have a very solid majority in both houses of Congress. Opposition and non-aligned parties’ share will remain about the same as they did in 2006.

A key part of the government coalition is the National Integration Party (PIN), many of whose members are related to, or from the same political groupings of, legislators imprisoned for ties to paramilitary groups. The PIN party, says Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, was “designed in jail.” However, the La Silla Vacía website notes, several other parties had candidates suspected of ties to organized crime and armed groups, and most of them won.

For the first time, two leaders of Colombia’s non-governmental human rights movement did well, both as candidates of the leftist Polo Democrático party. Iván Cepeda of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes was elected to the Congress, and Gloria Flórez of Asociación Minga was elected to the Andean Parliament.

Senate (102 members; 94% of ballots counted) (Source)

Pro-Government 58

La U 27 (20 in 2006) – the party headed by President Uribe’s former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, the front-runner in polling for the May 30 presidential elections.
Conservative Party 23 (18 in 2006) – the Conservatives also held a presidential primary pitting former ambassador and minister Noemí Sanín against former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias (known as “Uribito” for his loyalty to the President). The final result is not yet known.
PIN 8 - the party most associated with the “para-politicians.”

Opposition 26

Liberal Party (center-left) 18 (18 in 2006)
olo Democrático (left) 8 (10 in 2006) – the Polo lost seats in part because of internal infighting, and in part due to the unpopularity of Bogotá’s current mayor, Samuel Moreno.

Other 15

Cambio Radical (center-right) 8 (15 in 2006) – the party of right-wing politician Germán Vargas Lleras, part of the pro-Uribe coalition until Vargas Lleras broke away in early 2009. Many members of Cambio Radical defected to “La U.”
Green Party (center-left)
– the party of three popular former Bogotá mayors, Antanas Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa and Luis Eduardo Garzón. The Greens also held a presidential primary on Sunday, which Mockus won.
MIRA (evangelical) 2

Chamber of Representatives (166 members; 90% of ballots counted) (Source)

Pro-Government 101

La U 49 (30 in 2006)
Conservatives 37 (29 in 2006)
PIN 14
Alas Equipo 1 (8 in 2006) – a small party many of whose members were caught up in the “para-politics” scandal.

Opposition 39

Liberals (center-left) 34 (35 in 2006)
Polo Democrático (left) 5 (10 in 2006)

Other 24

Cambio Radical (center-right) 15 (20 in 2006)
Green Party (center-left) 3
Apertura Liberal 2 – tied to DMG, a failed pyramid scheme
Unidad Liberal (regional / Huila department) 2
MIRA (evangelical) 1

Indigenous Social Alliance 1 – allied with center-left former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo, whose movement made a surprisingly weak showing.

Feb 26

Constitutional Court President Mauricio Gonzalez Cuervo announces its 7-2 decision: the constitutional reform referendum bill was unconstitutional because of the way it was approved. President Álvaro Uribe cannot run for a third term on May 30.

President Uribe accepts the court’s decision.

This is a very good step for Colombia. Its institutions, especially the balance between democratic powers, showed real strength today. Mature and stable democracies do not change their constitutions to benefit one individual, no matter how popular. Colombia is to be congratulated.

The court’s decision is also good news for the Obama administration, which certainly had no desire to work with an “ally” governed by a third-term president who proved unable to leave power voluntarily.

Feb 24

Update as of 2:45PM Thursday: The “La Silla Vacía” website, which practices serious journalism and is unlikely to blow its credibility on a story likely to be quickly proven incorrect, is reporting that the referendum does not have the votes in the Constitutional Court and that “Uribe will not be able to run for re-election.”

Update as of 5:15PM: Rumor is that the court will announce its decision on Friday. No new information about what they might decide.

El Tiempo reports that Colombia’s Constitutional Court, in session right now, is near a decision on the legality of a referendum to allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third term. That decision could come today.

Sources in the Constitutional Court confirmed to El Tiempo that yesterday, in what was the fifth hearing about the referendum, a majority trend was revealed in favor of the position of Judge Humberto Sierra Porto, which proposes to reject the initiative.

The same sources even said that the court’s decision, which will resolve the greatest political crossroads of recent years, could come in today’s session, or next Friday’s at the latest.

If the court finds against the referendum, somebody other than Álvaro Uribe will be elected president on May 30 (or in a subsequent second round). Stay tuned.

Jan 27

Note as of 1:00 AM January 28: After 13 hours of deliberation today, El Tiempo reports, Colombia’s National Electoral Council decided to suspend the ADN party, citing the active role played by imprisoned politicians.

(This post was composed with research assistance from CIP Intern Cristina Salas.)

As Colombia inches closer to its March 14 legislative elections, it is growing ever clearer that the country has not left “para-politics” behind.

The last time Colombia reelected its Congress, in March 2006, about a third of the winners ended up under investigation, on trial or in prison for ties to mass-murdering, drug-trafficking paramilitary groups who were politically powerful in many regions. (Download a recent list here.) The resulting scandal raised public awareness of organized crime’s infiltration of Colombia’s government, and spurred Colombia’s Supreme Court to attempt an ambitious housecleaning in the legislature. But the phenomenon continues in the current election cycle.

Since the 2006 cycle, three parties all but ceased to exist because of the huge number of office-holders who ended up in trouble for sponsoring, aiding and abetting, or otherwise making deals with the right-wing militias. But “Colombia Viva,” “Colombia Democrática” and “Convergencia Ciudadana” are back in new guises, running candidates for the March vote.

The three parties have undergone a makeover, reemerging as Alianza Democrática Nacional (National Democratic Alliance) and Partido de Integración Nacional (National Integration Party), but maintaining the legal registrations of Convergencia Ciudadana and Colombia Democrática, respectively. (This El Tiempo editorial asserts that they maintain the legal registrations of Convergencia and Colombia Viva.)

Alianza Democrática Nacional, or “ADN” (the Spanish initials of DNA, as in genetic code), was created in early December by former members of Colombia Viva, Convergencia Ciudadana and Colombia Democrática, the latter party founded by President Álvaro Uribe’s second cousin Mario Uribe, who is currently under investigation for paramilitary ties. Colombia Viva included Senator Vicente Blel, sentenced this week to seven years in prison, and Álvaro García, accused of conspiring with paramilitaries who carried out a notoriously horrific string of massacres in the Montes de María region during the early 2000s. Juan Carlos Martínez, a Convergencia Ciudadana senator from Valle del Cauca, is accused of helping to organize the ADN party from his prison cell.

Former members of Convergencia Ciudadana created the Partido de Integración Nacional, or “PIN”, after the earlier party ceased to exist because its founder, ex-senator Luis Alberto Gil, was jailed and another one of its leaders, ex-governor of Santander Hugo Aguilar, came under judicial investigation.

Colombian analysts say that these political parties exist in part to support the campaigns of political heirs of the “para-politicians,” thus guaranteeing their continued influence and local political power. As the scandal leaves voids in local political leadership structures, the parties aim to fill them with the scandal-tarred bosses’ friends, relatives or allies. In the candidates list for the upcoming elections, for instance, ex-senator Gil has been replaced by his wife, and ex-governor Aguilar by his son. (More examples of family members serving as substitutes can be found in this piece in the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio.)

The head of the largest “mainstream” pro-Uribe party, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos of the “Partido Social de la Unidad” or “U”, claims that the party is doing its utmost to avoid paramilitary influence. (Several “U” party legislators have been embroiled in the para-politics scandal, though the party was not hit as hard as the three parties being re-packaged today.) Santos announced that all “U” candidates for the upcoming Congress elections will be investigated for ties with illegal groups, including the signing of sworn statements and verification by an “ethics committee.”

Left-of-center Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán says that those who do not pass muster in La U will end up in the ADN or PIN parties, “enchanted creations conceived at the last minute by the Palace of Nariño [Colombian 'White House'] to house the scum of the paramilitary mafia that the ‘U’ no longer has the luxury of admitting.”

Meanwhile, ADN and PIN, their campaigns flush with cash, are blanketing several regions of Colombia with advertisements professing their support for President Uribe, hoping to ride his coat-tails back into office, four years after the “para-politics” scandal first broke.

Jan 20

With legislative elections scheduled for March 14 and presidential elections slated for May 30, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is running out of time to change Colombia’s constitution and run for a third consecutive term in office.

The timetable is tight, but not impossible, Colombia’s Semana magazine explains.

Starting last week, when Inspector-General (Procurador) Alejandro Ordóñez submitted to the Constitutional Court his finding in favor of the referendum, the time period of 30 workdays began for Magistrate Humberto Sierra Porto to submit to the full tribunal his finding about its constitutionality. After these 30 days, which would end on February 22, the Constitutional Court’s nine magistrates could take another 60 to make their definitive decision. If this is positive, and Registrar Carlos Ariel Sánchez takes the full three months that he originally announced that organizing the referendum vote would require, the voting could take place in mid-August, by which time Álvaro Uribe would have no possibility of running for his second re-election.

But these procedures’ speed still breathes life into the possibility that the referendum could be approved and the President might run without having to change the electoral calendar. [Colombia's media is abuzz with speculation that pro-Uribe legislators might take the drastic step of trying to delay Colombia's election day.] These are the counts made in the majority of the political world’s circles: if Magistrate Sierra Porto presents his finding to the court’s full chamber in less than 20 days, as several sources in the high tribunal attest, the court could be issuing its finding by the end of February.

Then the ball would be in the hands of Registrar Sánchez, who over the past few months has been reducing the time he says he needs to arrange the referendum vote logistics. While in the middle of last year he told Semana he needed four months, in August he spoke of three and in November of two. As a result, and recalling his frequent changes of opinion, it would not be odd for Sánchez to accept that the referendum be voted a day before the legislative elections scheduled for March 14, using the same infrastructure for both votes. In theory, this would not require seeking a new list of guarantors, setting up new ballots, or organizing new voting precincts. In this case, the elections could be organized in less than two months.

However Sánchez, the registrar, said Monday that he would still need two months to organize the referendum vote. He cited “logistical and legal terms that would mean at least two months,” as well as contracting procedures. According to Semana magazine’s shortest timeline, that would place the referendum in mid-April, a mere month and a half before the presidential election in which Uribe might or might not be a candidate.

Oct 08

In an interview with BBC Mundo published today, Colombian Vice President makes a novel argument. The main reason Álvaro Uribe should be re-elected to a third term, Santos says, is because Colombia faces “generic” threats from outside its borders. Excerpt:

BBC: “And you, as vice-president of Colombia. Are you in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election?”

Vice-President Francisco Santos: “Look, I am in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election, given the situation of the continent. A very complex situation in which the threat to Colombia has become ‘trans-border.’ The threat to Colombia is outside its borders. There is an urgent need to continue and put an end to criminal and terrorist organizations. I believe we are in a moment in which it is needed simply to keep pressuring. And I don’t believe Colombia should now be experimenting, making a change and having learning processes (…). A third term for the president would not affect democracy. Those who say it would do not believe in democracy (…).”

BBC: “You say that the threat to Colombia comes from outside its borders. What are you referring to?”

Santos: “The Colombian problem today has some connotations that generate complexities that you know well, you have seen them and reported on them. I don’t want to be specific in this sense so as not to generate diplomatic complications, but it is a reality that the world recognizes and that, for Colombia, brings about some political and, above all, diplomatic challenges to which it is urgent to begin to attend.”

BBC: “Might this concrete case [this week's Colombian Defense Ministry allegation that the FARC has encampments inside Ecuador] be what is being referred to when you spoke of trans-border threats against Colombia?”

Santos: “Essentially, no.”

BBC: “Then, what were you talking about concretely?”

Santos: “I’ll repeat. I prefer to leave that in generic terms, which is the best way to manage an issue as complicated as that (…), which is ever more clear about, that represents a threat to the continent, but for Colombia represents a challenge that is, above all, diplomatic (…).”

BBC: “You give the impression that you are making an indefinite accusation, like someone who throws a stone then conceals his hand, to say it flatly.”

Santos: “Well, this is what many do, and I believe that in diplomacy sometimes one has to talk to Juan so that Pedro understands. So I think it is important in that sense. But I believe that you as journalists who cover the world and reality, you know how things are.”

BBC: “You’re not willing to be more concrete.”

Santos: “No, no.”

Oct 06

… of Colombians think that Álvaro Uribe is the only human being capable of governing Colombia, according to a poll featured in this week’s Semana magazine. This is equal to the percentage that believe someone else could do the job. The poll is full of good news for Colombia’s president as he edges ever closer to seeking a third term.

Sep 07

Colombia’s media over the past few days are full of elite, “respectable” opinion writers using some unusually dire language to describe the state of their country’s democracy. The cause, of course, is last week’s bare-majority vote in Colombia’s Congress allowing a referendum to let President Álvaro Uribe run for a third term.

Some examples follow.

The future dynamic appears to be one of the enthronement of a plebiscitary democracy without counterweights. The political-institutional cost of this phenomenon could be incalculable. …

What I still cannot understand is the President’s attitude. That of submitting the country to this exhausting and disconcerting process and that of castrating any possibility of democratic alteration in power. That of not having sown, after seven years, the continuity of his ideas through so many uribista leaders willing to take his place. That of thinking himself, in the end, indispensable and irreplaceable.

This reveals an egoism that could devolve into a caudillismo that is indigestible and, in the long term, damaging to the country. What Uribe is proposing, without saying it (because he doesn’t speak of such issues) is that in today’s world things are different, and we must overcome all of these democratic scruples, all of this legal formalism and all of this institutional tradition in order to consolidate the politically correct ideas that he embodies.

A conviction that is no doubt sincere. Just as those of Chávez, Evo or Correa might be in their governing platforms. …

I esteem and respect President Uribe and I admire his capacity for work and leadership, which few Colombian presidents have shown. I supported his first reelection, but today it gives me the shivers to think that he believes that two were not enough and that he is seeking, at any price, a third term.

- Enrique Santos Calderón, co-director of El Tiempo and brother of Vice-President Francisco Santos, writing in El Tiempo.

This is not the moment to be complacent about Colombian democracy, nor with the will of the majority. It is time to pass from yellow to red alert. The government and its congressional supporters possess absolute power, and they have demonstrated that they will not be detained by legal or regulatory barriers, nor will they respect the Constitution. It must not be forgotten that the majority of coups d’etat have been directed by charismatic leaders – prominently that of Hitler in 1933 – … and that they are carried out with the collaboration or complicity of legislators who are captive, attracted, coopted or intimidated by the executive backed by the military or by popular majorities.

- Rudolf Hommes, minister of finance in the government of César Gaviria, writing in El Tiempo.

From this point forward I announce that I will not vote again for President Uribe, though I admire him and though I thank him for all that he has undoubtedly done for the country.

My complaint with Uribe is about what I consider to be the two largest failures of the sum of his two terms: his unwon war against corruption and his impotence when it comes to redistributing income among Colombians.

Doing away with corruption was even his campaign theme. But not only do we not breath any air of political or administrative health, many of the government’s attitudes – including the methods used to approve the referendum – are acting directly and publicly as terrible examples for the collective unconscious of the Colombian people, which already shows a propensity toward easy money and get-rich-quick schemes. I can’t remember the country ever having a worse atmosphere when it comes to the issue of corruption.

- El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda, a professed supporter of Uribe since he was governor of Antioquia department in the mid-1990s.

Let’s see whether in twelve years the caudillo Uribe is able to beat the FARC, but maybe not four but eight more years will be needed, until 16 or 20 are completed (or perhaps 40 or 50, like Fidel and like Franco). Why don’t we just prepare another constitutional reform that will allow our Perón, our Porfirio, to govern until 2030? Or until there is a soldier for every coca plant and half the country’s budget is sucked up by a big-bellied army.

- Bestselling (in Colombia) author Héctor Abad Faciolince, writing in El Espectador.

Sep 06

Or, in English, “While Uribe breathes, may nobody else aspire [to be president].”

Noted by El Tiempo editor Enrique Santos (who attributes it to former Interior Minister Jaime Castro in a must-read column) and Semana magazine, citing Bogotá graffiti.

Sep 02
The Uribistas celebrate on the floor of Colombia’s House. (Picture from Semana.)

Only a month ago, Colombian politics watchers believed that the referendum to allow President Álvaro Uribe’s reelection was dead. A month of political strong-arm tactics revived it, and yesterday it cleared what might end up having been its biggest hurdle. Colombia’s House of Representatives, by a vote of 85-5, approved the referendum bill, sending it to Uribe for his signature.

Despite appearances, this was a very, very close nail-biter of a vote. Colombia’s House has 166 members. The entire opposition stayed out of the chamber – whether to abstain, to prevent the arrival at a quorum necessary for a vote, or both. The bill needed 84 votes to pass and only got 85. Not a ringing endorsement, but enough to gain full congressional approval.

Members of opposition parties insist that the needed votes were only gained through offers of political favors, like the ability to choose the next occupants of key government posts. “What has happened in the Congress is an embarrassment because every kind of corruption has been seen,” said former Medellín Mayor and independent presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo. Liberal Party presidential candidate Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister, charged today that recent shifts of mid-level positions in the national prison system may have been the result of such backroom dealing on behalf of the referendum.

The next obstacle the referendum faces is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must rule on the constitutionality of the law and the process by which it was approved. There is no fixed period for how long this process must take; El Tiempo estimates about 80 days, but also includes a chart of possible timetables that could have the court’s ruling as early as mid-November or as late as next April, a month before the May 30 presidential elections.

The Uribe government would ideally want to schedule the referendum before December – less than three months from now. A vote during Colombia’s long holiday period (mid-December to mid-January) is impossible, and after that, much focus will be on the March congressional elections.

El Tiempo discusses another, more chaotic possibility: holding the referendum at the same time as the March legislative elections, in the same balloting. This could happen if the pro-Uribe-majority Congress passes legislation changing a few deadlines – including the date by which Uribe would officially have to declare himself a candidate (currently November 30). If this strategem succeeds, Colombia could effectively be treated to a two-month-long presidential campaign: one that begins with a March 2009 referendum on whether Uribe can run, and ends with the May 2009 election.

All this assumes, though, that the Constitutional Court – once it rules – will rule in favor of allowing the referendum to go ahead. This is not a certainty. The list of procedural problems with the law is long, as this enumeration by Colombia’s El Nuevo Siglo newspaper makes clear. A former constitutional court justice, Clara Inés Vargas, told several Colombian radio outlets earlier today that the court’s approval would be difficult to obtain. However, the majority of the current court’s justices are now Uribe appointees, so things could be different now.

Sep 01

Colombia’s House of Representatives has only a handful of recusal requests to consider (see earlier post). After that, voting could begin on a bill to schedule a constitutional amendment referendum to allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third term.

El Tiempo reports:

So far 21 [of 30] recusal requests have been voted on. All have been denied with between 66 and 83 votes. The opposition has had between 2 and 27 votes.

If the recusal votes are used as a thermometer to know how many votes the referendum will obtain upon its final vote, the support would not be enough, as it would need a minimum of 84 votes to be approved.

Aug 28

Greetings from my couch – I’ve been out sick the last two days. But this morning I took lots of ibuprofen and wrote this analysis of the Colombia base agreement dispute and the UNASUR meeting for the Huffington Post.

Also to update on the re-election referendum debate in Colombia’s Congress: the process of reviewing all 92 legislators’ recusal requests has proven to be too time-consuming, and the House adjourned Wednesday night, postponing further deliberations for as many as eight days. Some Colombian press has been speculating that the pro-reelection camp is still uncertain about whether they have the votes, and may need a few extra days to twist arms outside the spotlight.

Aug 26

Following up on yesterday’s post: Colombia’s House of Representatives did not vote last night on the re-election referendum bill. They adjourned near midnight after 92 of the body’s 166 members recused themselves from the vote.

The main reason was that 86 of them were already under investigation by Colombia’s Supreme Court for the crime of “prevaricato” – roughly, acting against legal procedure. Several months ago, these 86 voted in favor of the referendum before they were legally allowed to do so, as Colombia’s governmental Registry had not yet approved the signatures on the public petitions that made the vote legally possible.

As a result, the chamber spent its session yesterday considering each recusal request individually, and the vote never occurred. It may occur tonight, as the House is convening again this afternoon.

El Tiempo indicates that when the vote does occur, the referendum to allow President Uribe to seek immediate re-election is likely to be approved.

While it was not possible to pass the law, from the first moments it was more or less clear that the necessary votes were in place.

The first sign was the body’s refusal to approve a request from Rep. Guillermo Rivera to exclude the issue from the day’s agenda. The request was denied by a 93-42 vote.

One way to interpret this, as several congresspeople said, is that it indicated that the 93 representatives who refused to approve Rivera’s proposal are the same ones who want to vote in favor of the referendum.

Aug 25

Today may be the most important day for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s bid to run for a third straight term in office. The lower house of the country’s Congress, the Chamber of Representatives, is to vote on legislation to hold a referendum this fall. In that vote, Colombians will decide whether to change their constitution – for the second time in four years – to allow Uribe to compete in the May 2010 presidential vote and remain in power for twelve straight years.

A month ago, after opposition figures took over the presidencies of Colombia’s House and Senate, most Colombian analysts were arguing that the re-election referendum was as good as dead. But late last week, some hard-nosed behind-the-scenes politicking convinced Colombia’s Senate to pass a bill.

This legislation, allowing a referendum for a third consecutive re-election, closely resembles what the Senate had already passed. The House, however, had months ago passed a bill interpreted only as allowing a referendum to give Uribe the right to run in 2014, leaving the Congress deadlocked.

It is not clear whether, when it votes tonight, the lower house will change its position and approve a referendum for 2010 reelection. The pro-reelection camp first needs a quorum: 84 of 166 representatives must be present for the vote. Those who do show up are almost certain to vote yes, with the rest boycotting to prevent the possibility of a quorum. (This is what happened in the Senate, when 58 of 102 senators reported for a 56-2 vote in favor of the referendum.)

Whether that 84-member threshold will be reached is the subject of feverish speculation in Colombia’s media. The pro-Uribe camp claims to have more than 85, or as many as 92 or 94 votes, already locked up. Opposition figures, meanwhile, are denouncing that legislators are being offered favors, or otherwise pressured, to vote “yes” to allow the referendum.

If the bill passes the House this evening, its next step is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must guarantee that the referendum law meets with several procedural and constitutional requirements (explained in a Flash animation, in Spanish, on the La Silla Vacía website).

The outlook is completely uncertain.