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Office Politics

Bogotá Dispatch

ON A RECENT Saturday morning, President Álvaro Uribe held the Colombian equivalent of a town-hall meeting in Málaga, Santander Province. Tieless in a casual plaid shirt and standing before a gigantic seal of Colombia, Uribe praised the locals for their generous hospitality that "increases our love for the great Colombian people" and then lauded Málaga's efficient new airport. After a brief speech, Uribe introduced Transportation Minister Andrés Gallego to the crowded room. Gallego launched into a detailed presentation of the number of roads, bridges, and tunnels being constructed in Santander under Uribe's watch. He then introduced another official, Mauricio Ramírez, head of the National Roads Institute, who further summarized government projects in the area. "We aren't cutting even one kilometer. We are paving all of them," Ramírez boasted.

The Málaga event is typical of right-wing President Uribe's "community councils," as they are known here. A staple of Uribe's unconventional and wildly popular presidency, the president and rotating members of his cabinet travel every Saturday morning to a far-flung region of Colombia to hear about local problems and personally offer solutions, usually before an audience of hundreds. The community councils fit Uribe's image as a workaholic president for whom no detail of government is too small or inconsequential.

And yet the community councils also highlight what is so worrisome about the Uribe government. Broadcast for as long as 12 hours on Colombia's public TV station, Senal Colombia, they amount to a taxpayer-funded political advertisement for Uribe, who has sponsored an initiative to change the Colombian constitution to allow presidents to seek a second term. The reelection proposal has passed the Colombian congress, but it faces several Constitutional Court challenges before Uribe can be on the ballot in 2006. Some are predicting the amendment may be disallowed, in which case Uribe may mount a write-in campaign.

Uribe's reelection would be bad news for Colombia, breeding an inadvisable authoritarian tradition in a country that has never had one. Most disturbingly, the constitutional amendment was passed for Uribe's narrow political benefit and wouldn't strengthen institutions in a country where they are already weak. In short, Uribe's reelection bid will damage Colombian democracy, and it threatens to destabilize a country that is just beginning to remake itself after 41 years of violence.

Despite myriad other problems, Colombia has paradoxically enjoyed one of the longest-standing democracies in South America. Unlike other countries in the region, Colombia has not given rise to military strongmen, or caudillos, like Chile's Augusto Pinochet or the Argentine junta. In modern times, Colombia has had just one military dictator, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who was booted from power in 1957 by an agreement between Colombia's two main political parties to form a power-sharing arrangement known as the National Front. Reelection was formally prohibited in the 1991 constitution (before that, presidents could seek a second term nonconsecutively).

The relative weakness of the Colombian government is one reason leftist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (called by their Spanish acronym, FARC) have been able to keep their struggle alive since 1964. Right-wing paramilitaries, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (known by the acronym AUC) stepped in to fight the FARC in the 1980s after wealthy landowners became frustrated by the lack of government action. A stronger central government could help diminish violence, but that wouldn't necessarily happen by extending the president's term. Even with an aggressive military campaign by Uribe, the FARC rebels have stepped up their attacks in what some argue is an attempt to derail Uribe's efforts to secure a second term. In early April, the FARC killed 17 government soldiers in a rocket attack, and, most recently, they launched an assault on the southwestern town of Toribeo, killing and wounding both policemen and civilians.

Uribe and company argue that reelection is a crucial means to continue the president's promising fight against "narco-terrorists" (both the FARC and AUC are heavily involved in drug trafficking). But, the way the amendment was cleverly written, it would benefit Uribe without helping to strengthen Colombia's institutions. Indeed, the provision prohibits sitting governors and mayors from challenging him for president. That clause was aimed at Bogotá Mayor Lucho Gárzon, the most popular political figure next to the president. "The reelection bill was made for Uribe," said Fernando Giraldo, the dean of political science at Bogotá's Javeriana University. "Reelection isn't a response to a maturation of the democratic system, but the result of political circumstances." Furthermore, the bill is designed to expire in 2014, four years after Uribe would finish a second term. If Uribe really believed that two-term presidents were a way of fortifying the central government and defeating the FARC, he would have fought to permanently change the constitution.

Like many critics of reelection, Giraldo argues that Colombia already has an excessively strong presidency--without the counterweights of more developed democracies like the United States. Here, most things can be accomplished by presidential decree; if Congress doesn't pass the budget in time, for instance, the president can simply mandate one. Allowing the president to serve a second four-year term would only further distort the inequality, says Giraldo. And Uribe already exhibits a troubling tendency to overstep his bounds as chief executive. Take the recent example of the capture of FARC leader Rodrigo Granda in Venezuela. Instead of going through legal channels, Uribe chose to pay greedy Venezuelan officials to nab Granda in Caracas and dump him over the border in Colombia, where he was arrested. The resulting crisis was the worst break in diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Colombia in recent history.

As it stands now, Uribe will have a host of unfair advantages heading into 2006. Critics accuse him of altering policy decisions and trading diplomatic posts for narrow political gain. Over strong objections from opposition parties in congress, Uribe agreed to increase social spending in order to nab crucial support from the Conservative Party. (Uribe, a former member of the Liberal Party, has no party of his own in Congress to count on.)

Two Conservative congressmen were won over with personal rewards in now-infamous episodes. In another incident, Vice President Francisco Santos offered to leave the 2006 ticket in favor of Conservative Party President Carlos Holguín. Now Holguín's son, Carlos Holguín Sardi, has been nominated ambassador to Ecuador. Uribe has appointed dozens of siblings, aunts, daughters, and sons of congressmen to ambassadorial posts, although the public outcry over the practice recently became so bad that Uribe was forced to announce that he would halt the practice.

Uribe will enjoy plenty of other advantages over potential opponents in his reelection bid. There is no guaranteed financing for campaigns, nor is there equal access to the media to compete with the notorious community councils. The election rules are to be determined in debates now taking place in the Uribe-friendly congress. Frustrated opponents are left to sit and watch from the sidelines. "The competition between Uribe and others is going to be very unequal," lamented Senator Carlos Gaviria, who is running against Uribe from the left. "In the United States, the opposition is much more respected and it has a lot more guarantees."

Influential ex-President Alfonso Lopez Michelsen—outraged that Uribe might attempt to seek reelection even if the Constitutional Court declares the amendment allowing him to run for a second term invalid—has called for the formation of an anti-Uribe coalition. Gaviria says that, if the left doesn't warm to Michelsen's suggestion and unite behind a single candidate in the 2006 elections, defeating Uribe will be difficult. "If there isn't unity, defeating Uribe seems a little bit less than impossible," Gaviria said. The decline of Colombian democracy, however, will seem more probable than ever.

Rachel Van Dongen is a writer based in Bogotá, Colombia.

This article appeared in the May 2 & 9, 2005, issue of the magazine.