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Sweet Sour Colombian Democracy

Image by Arnaud Carlos Andrès Vittet (found on Flickr.com)

Democracy has had a hard time in the past few years in some parts of Latin America. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has turned a once liberal democracy into an electoral autocracy. Various constitutional reforms undertaken since he took power in 1999 almost guarantee him a de facto presidency for life. Followers of his “21st Century Socialism” in the region, such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua or Rafael Correa in Ecuador, seem to have similar goals of perpetuation of power. In the case of Colombia, President Uribe’s intention of running for a third term, which is not provided for under the current constitution and therefore would require a constitutional change to be approved by popular referendum, was widely criticized. It was seen as yet another attempt of a Latin American head of state—although of opposed ideological convictions with regards to the proponents of Chávez’ “Bolivarian Revolution”—to concentrate too much power in too few hands. But Colombia, a country with strong democratic traditions[1], has once again proven to be a democracy with functioning institutions and separation of powers. The constitutional court turned down a law, which would have allowed a popular referendum about the possibility for President Uribe to run for a third consecutive term, as being unconstitutional.

Throughout his two terms (2002-2006 and 2006-2010), Uribe has enjoyed an overwhelming popularity of around 70% amongst the Colombian population—a unique figure among its Latin American neighbours, attributable to the Colombian society’s fatigue with regards to the high rates of kidnappings and homicides, as well as to the failed peace talks with the FARC during Andrés Pastrana’s government. And would he have the opportunity to run for a third term, he would most certainly win the elections. But Uribe, despite his known aspirations to be re-elected a second time and in an act of democratic statesmanship, immediately said to accept and respect the decision of the constitutional court.

The flip-side of recent developments with regards to Colombian democracy, though, has been that the parliamentary elections held in early March have not achieved to banish the ghost of paramilitarism. The PIN Party (Spanish: Partido de Integracion Nacional) becomes the fourth largest party in the senate and is therefore one of the big winners of these elections. Before the elections, many of its members were involved in the so called “parapolitics” scandal, accused of having ties to paramilitary groups. And although most of its newly elected legislators are new to congress, it is criticized that many of them have family ties to the former “parapolitics” parliamentarians.

Other winners were the Partido de la U of former Defence Minister and presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos as well as the traditional Conservative Party—both allies of Uribe—whereas the left-wing Polo Democratico lost parliamentary power. The newly composed parliament and the popular support for Uribe’s policies would suggest a landslide victory of Juan Manuel Santos, one of Uribe’s closest associates and probably his favorite presidential candidate, in the election’s first round. However, the tight victory of Noemí Sanín over Andres Felipe Arias in the Conservative Party primaries could mean a more uncertain outcome in the first round. Sanín, a former ambassador to the UK and Spain, foreign minister under President Gavíria, and presidential candidate in 1998 and 2002, can also count on a solid popular support and could challenge Santos in May’s elections.

[1] The Colombian democracy emerged in the late nineteenth century, a period to which Samuel Huntington refers to as the ‘First Wave of Democratization’. By the end of the ‘Second Wave’, towards the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, only three Latin American countries were considered to be liberal democracies – Costa Rica, Venezuela and Colombia.

Image: © Arnaud Carlos Andrès Vittet (found on Flickr.com)

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