Colombia: Conservatives Defy Plea for Santos Reelection Coalition


EspañolIn 2009, when former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) was trying to change the Colombian constitution for the second time to cling to power by means of reelection, which was originally forbidden, I wrote an article for El Tiempo and mentioned Alexis de Tocqueville’s thoughts on the matter. Tocqueville understood the benefits of a presidential reelection in a modern democracy, which basically amount to the possibility of a continuity in policy and leadership. Nonetheless, he warned against its hazards.

Tocqueville mentioned the fact that reelection, by increasing the president’s authority, swells a boundless and dangerous ambition for power; it increases the eagerness of a band of partisans to share the spoils of victory; an incumbent campaigning with the state’s machinery at his disposal will usually resort to unscrupulous methods in order to gain victory; high office becomes a reward for mere loyalty or flattery, not for talent; reelection leads not to statesmanship, but to electoral populism, to the tyranny of a majority.

Well, it turns out that Tocqueville, as usual, was right on every count. Even though the Colombian Constitutional Court forbade a second reelection for Uribe, the public learned of the shenanigans and shameful double-dealings involved in securing parliamentary support for the first reelection. This included the bribing of members of parliament (MPs) and the handing out of notaries, traditional cash cows, to cronies.

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During the last four years, President Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s defense minister and successor, has led a multiparty coalition, which I have compared to a single-party state. His sole aim, in my view, has been to win an effortless reelection, and he has increased the size and scope of the state bureaucracy in order to hand out jobs to members of practically all parties. Santos has hoped that financing boondoggles, creating quangos and lavishly handing out state “marmalade,” as the practice has become known in Colombia, will guarantee him enough votes to remain in power.

Santos easily gained the support of his own party (Social Party of National Unity), of the Liberal Party (a member of the Socialist International since the 1990’s) and of Radical Change. The latter is the stronghold of Germán Vargas Lleras, Santos’s former minister of Interior and Housing and an electoral baron in his own right. Many pundits argued that if the Conservative Party — in second place in 2010 in terms of overall voting in parliament — supported the president’s reelection bid, then Santos would be a shoo-in for the next four years.

A few weeks ago, as the Conservative primary on January 26 approached, news sites reported that Santos supporters within the Conservative Party, to which I belong, were paying their followers so that they could travel to Bogotá from different regions and vote for an alliance with the president. This enraged the party’s rank and file, which includes long-time members, students, and new candidates such as myself.

Dismayed, since we perceived that the Conservative leadership had sold out the party in order to gain favor with and money from the government, party members were clamoring for the Conservatives to oppose Santos’s reelection and launch a candidate of their own. The scales within the “independence movement” were leaning heavily toward Marta Lucía Ramírez, who served as Uribe’s defence minister before Santos. An extremely determined woman, Ramírez had been travelling across Colombia during the last year in order to garner support from local leaders.

Practically all mainstream media outlets predicted an easy victory for Santos’ supporters, who were led by Senator Roberto Gerlein, an octogenarian fat cat from the Atlantic coast who has run a large electoral machine for decades. More recently, he became notorious by referring to homosexual acts as “scatological.” Still, whoever spoke to party members knew that the primary would be no stroll in the park for Santos and his Conservative followers. When asked by a friend the day before the convention, I said that I truly had no idea what the result would be.

At 7 a.m., I joined a group of about 25 college students at the home of Senator Juan Mario Laserna, a Yale and Stanford educated economist who led the mere handful of Conservative MPs who opted for independence and openly supported Ramírez before the convention. When he spoke to us, Laserna quoted St. Crispin’s Day Speech; such was the mood.

When we arrived at the convention hall where the primary would take place, the rebellious spirit was palpable. Although some people queuing to enter the venue wore “Conservatives with Santos” t-shirts, they were quite subdued. The party faithful, on the other hand, was raising a veritable ruckus, chanting slogans such as “the party’s not for sale!” and “no to Santos, Serpa and Samper!” The latter two are Liberal Party bigwigs who were involved in a colossal scandal in the 90’s, when it emerged that the drug-trafficking Cali Cartel had financed Ernesto Samper’s presidential campaign (he governed from 1994 till 1998).

We made our small contribution to the festivities by inviting a couple of professional tango dancers to the event; as they twirled suggestively in front of the convention members and the media, we held up placards stating that the Conservative Party has had “more postures than principles.” In honesty, who can say that politics is boring?

Once inside — such was the scale of the reigning disorder that I managed to sneak in through a side door — the audience heard three hardly stellar speeches. The first, pronounced by Party Chairman Omar Yepes, was simply boring, calling for consensus and complaining that the Conservatives had no representatives in Havana, where the government is negotiating peace with the FARC guerrillas.

“Do these fellows think about anything aside from government jobs?” I tweeted

Thereafter Álvaro Leyva and Pablo Victoria, a pair of old-timers who stood as candidates in the primary, spoke like provincial caudillos, referring repeatedly to mid 20th century Colombian history while drawing on an extensive array of military analogies. Leyva was particularly histrionic, stomping across the stage and throwing sheets of paper in the air to emphasize a point. The audience was amused, and ample cheers were heard whenever the speaker advocated an independent Conservative candidate.

When Ramírez stood up to speak, it became clear that the overwhelming majority of those present supported her candidacy. Although she was the only candidate to present a coherent vision of the present and the future, she did not exactly match Elizabeth I at Tilbury. Her speech was dull, technocratic and excessively long; she spoke for close to three quarters of an hour when her time slot was 15 minutes. It was with relief that I heard her closing statements, and it was then that the most remarkable event of the day occurred.

As Senator Gerlein took the podium to present the case in favour of an alliance with Santos, the crowd began to chant, hiss, and jeer ever more loudly, so that his words became imperceptible. Ramírez and the party chairman intervened in vain, and Gerlein, realizing that the opprobrium was not about to subside, walked off the stage — he later claimed he was physically attacked — taking his pro-Santos friends with him.

After a 20-minute pause, the proceedings resumed, and Santos supporters were once again given a chance to speak, but they refused to do so. In fact, they were already gathered outside the convention hall planning to boycott the primary by removing all their supporters and preventing a quorum from being reached.

Nonetheless, the voting took place and, after the dysfunctional electronic voting machines nearly derailed the entire convention, the party chose to have an independent candidate with 1,190 votes in favour versus 119 against. In the next round of voting, Ramírez emerged as the clear winner with 1,047 votes while Victoria and Leyva garnished a mere 138 and 84, respectively.

The Conservative primary result altered the political terrain considerably, since Santos was expecting the party’s support for his reelection; in fact, he had flown in from Spain in order to give an acceptance speech, which he was never to deliver.

Ramírez, even though her candidacy’s legitimacy has been legally contested by her Conservative enemies, has been rising in the opinion polls. Last week, she reached 7.7 percent in one poll, coming in second overall behind Santos’ 25 percent. To be more precise, however, Santos placed second since more than 30 percent of the public plan to deposit a blank vote. Clearly, disillusion and anger with traditional politics have reached unprecedented levels.

Although I condemn the Conservative rank and file’s lack of tolerance toward Senator Gerlein — free speech is absolute in my view, and nobody, even the intolerant, must be censored — I perceived that his departure from the convention hall was an event of symbolic significance. I was amazed by the way in which the members of a party thought to be archaic by some, submissive by others, clearly rejected the old, usual way of doing politics. I believe that, although a healthy skepticism toward politicians persists, there is a general desire for ideas, principles and serious proposals.

Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, but I think that my campaign’s goal to create a libertarian strain within the Conservative Party may well be achieved.

That being said, I worry about Ramírez’s candidacy. On the one hand, she is no outright champion of free markets. On the other hand, there is much talk of a potential alliance between her and former President Uribe, who has become Santos’s chief opponent as a result of the peace process and has nominated a floundering candidate for the presidency named Óscar Iván Zuluaga. A deal of any sort with their new party, the Democratic Centre, would seriously undermine the independence the Conservatives gained in the convention. These, however, are topics for another post.

For now, my utmost wish is that Colombians heed Tocqueville’s warnings and take all necessary steps to limit presidential power, and state power in general.

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