Four reasons a constitutional reform referendum allowing re-election is unlikely this fall:
1. The congressional leadership elections during the week of July 20 were, in a sense, the final nail in the coffin. As they began a new session, Colombia’s House and Senate elected new presidents, both of them from center-right parties that have been firmly pro-Uribe since their creation. The Senate is now led by Javier Cáceres of the Radical Change party, and the House is headed by Édgar Gómez of the Citizens’ Convergence party.
According to La Silla Vacía, both politicians are on the verge of leaving the pro-Uribe bloc.
Cáceres is considered to be in opposition. The reason? Within the pro-Uribe bloc they believe that Cáceres will be loyal to Germán Vargas [a right-wing senator, the head of Cáceres' Radical Change party, who supported Uribe until earlier this year, when he publicly opposed re-election], and not to the government, since he needs Radical Change’s approval in order to run for Senate in 2010. … As representatives of this party confirmed to La Silla Vacía, Gómez struck an agreement months ago with César Gaviria [the former president, now head of the opposition Liberal party] to join the Liberal Party, where he began his political career and in which he will carry out his 2010 campaign, during the second half of this year.
La Silla Vacía speculates that Gómez and the Liberals may push hard for approval of a new Victims’ Law - which was overturned by President Uribe in June - because “it will be a popular campaign issue for them in 2010.”
The chambers’ presidents are not as powerful as their U.S. counterparts (the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader), but have significant control over the legislative agenda, La Silla Vacía explains.
Cáceres and Gómez choose who speaks in the plenary sessions, which bills deserve priority and decide when a quorum is sufficient to begin debating a bill. If they turn a blind eye and fail to count attendance at the right moment, they can sink a bill. They also exercise influence over some congresspeople, as they define which senators and representatives deserve a change in their official car or office arrangements. This extra power makes them able to tip the balance when it comes to choosing committee chairmanships.
How did the opposition - still a minority of Congress - carry out this takeover? La Silla Vacía explains:
Many ask how it was that the President lost control of such important positions at such a crucial moment for the referendum. The explanation is the same as always: bureaucratic resentments in the small Uribista parties who feel abandoned by the president. There were also several Uribistas’ concealed loyalties to candidates like “Uribito” [Andrés Felipe Arias, Uribe's former Agriculture Minister and likely Conservative party candidate if Uribe does not run] and Juan Manuel Santos [Uribe's former Defense Minister and a likely candidate of the Unity "La U" party if Uribe does not run], which ended up strengthening the opposition.
2. Time is running out. Semana describes a rapidly closing window for changing the Constitution in time for the 2010 voting.
While it is dead politically, technically it is still in its death throes. According to the Law of Guarantees, November 30 is the deadline by which the President must announce whether or not he intends to be a candidate for a third term. But in these four months two legally required phases must be overcome within very narrow time periods. First, the Constitutional Court’s revision of the bill, which during the last re-election took more than three months. And second, the convening of elections by the Civil Registry which, according to that agency, would take a similar amount of time. In other words, two processes that normally could take between six and eight months would have to be reduced by half. If the Uribista machinery were the steamroller that it was in the past, those two processes could be “railroaded through” in that time, despite the controversy it would inspire. But if anything was clear after July 20 [when the new congressional leadership was chosen], it was that the pro-Uribe bloc in Congress may still be a majority movement, but now it is not a steamroller.
3. The two chambers of Congress are unlikely to resolve a key difference in their referendum bills: the possibility of consecutive re-election. The Senate passed a bill for a referendum on whether to allow Uribe to run again in 2010. The House bill instead is written in a way that has been interpreted to allow re-election only in 2014. The House-Senate committee charged with “reconciling” the two bills does not appear likely to yield to the Senate’s 2010 version, writes Semana.
The majority of the 25 conferees named by the House have refused to serve on the committee, arguing that they fear legal consequences [more on that below]. However, there is an additional, weightier reason that they never invoke in public: that they don’t believe in the referendum anymore. And if the moment to turn the page is to be the reconciliation of the bills, then that moment has arrived.
4. Too many members of Congress fear legal consequences if they support the referendum. The 2004 constitutional change allowing Uribe to run in 2006 passed only because undecided members of a House committee were improperly offered favors. One of those members, Yidis Medina, is now in prison for accepting the power to name her associates to several lucrative positions in exchange for her pro-re-election vote. That scandal, called “Yidis-politics,” has cast a long shadow on attempts to move a second re-election forward. Notes Semana:
The “Yidis-politics” precedent has made it so that not a single government official even dares insinuate that he might be offering any favors to a legislator in exchange for their support of re-election. Those who did this in the last election ended up in trouble with the law. In addition, the 86 legislators who voted for the referendum [in December] before the National Electoral Council approved the signature count [on the petitions for the bill to be considered] are being investigated by the Supreme Court.
What might happen next, then? Key members of the Uribe government and the leadership of pro-Uribe parties insist that they are still trying to get the referendum bill reconciled by the middle of August, despite the obstacles. If that fails, their next options could be:
1. Convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, pushing off the 2010 elections if necessary. This is unlikely According to Semana, “Some recalcitrant ‘Furibistas’ [furious Uribistas, of course] mention the possibility of a legislative act or even a constituent assembly after the referendum sinks. None of that will fly in the Congress. As ex-President César Gaviria affirmed, ‘If the Uribista legislators weren’t able to elect their own congressional leadership, how are they going to process a constitutional reform in such a short period of time?’”
2. Have a referendum to allow a non-consecutive re-election in 2014. “What could happen,” Semana believes, “is a formula that could allow Álvaro Uribe to return to power in 2014. This would be a transaction which would give a little satisfaction to the president and allow everyone to wash their hands.” However, the magazine adds, Uribe’s return would be a poor idea.
Colombian democracy would be more fluid if, after eight years in government, its ex-presidents were unable to return, as is the case in the United States. An ex-president with a possibility of returning would cast a very heavy shadow during the interim. It is hard to imagine the Calvary suffered by Uribe’s replacement knowing that, among his followers, there is an expectation of monarchical restoration.
Will Uribe really just leave power next year? Some analysts are unwilling to believe that the president’s re-election drive is over. “The referendum is moribund, but re-election is alive and kicking,” writes Claudia López in El Tiempo today. “We cannot declare victory,” adds opposition supporter Daniel García-Peña in El Espectador. “Let’s not forget that in this country magical surrealism outweighs institutional reality, and the ‘Rule of Opinion’ kills the ‘Rule of Law’ (in the chess sense of the word).”
García-Peña, along with many other commentators in Colombia, refers to a controversial new rhetorical figure that keeps popping up in President Uribe’s speeches of late. The president keeps saying that the “Rule of Opinion” (Estado de Opinión) “is the superior phase” of the “Rule of Law” (Estado de Derecho). It is not clear what Uribe means by this - his language is rather abstract, poetic and vaguely populist - but it has many observers concerned that it implies a popular president’s prerogative to challenge institutional constraints. Including constraints on re-election?