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?

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.”