Colombia’s government coalition is in crisis after the Liberal Party, formally a loyal supporter of President Juan Manuel Santos, left the coalition leaving the head of state with a minority representation in Congress.
Liberal Party senate bench leader Horacio Serpa announced the split on Monday, stressing that the party will continue to support ongoing peace talks with FARC rebels.
The Conservative Party had left the coalition years ago already, but both the conservatives and the liberals, the two traditional power houses in Colombian politics, will maintain their ministers in the cabinet.
Pressure has been building in the coalition for some time, and Santos’ decision to leave out the Liberal Party’s Prosecutor General candidate worsened relations to the point of a coalition crisis. The Liberals have officially broken with the coalition.
Former Prosecutor General Eduardo Montealegre finished his term weeks ago already, but the process to select his successor is underway.
Montealegre was temporarily replaced by his number two, Jorge Perdomo, who has been personally in charge with the prosecution of war crimes of FARC guerrillas, but also politicians and businessmen.
A Prosecutor General is a useful political ally, so Santos caused a political storm when he left Perdomo, the Liberal Party’s choice, off the shortlist.
Santos’ shortlist of three candidates was unexpected, and the reasons behind it far from clear.
Santos received more than 150 names who had put themselves forward for the position and were qualified. From that list, he had to choose three names for a shortlist to present to the Supreme Court, who will make the ultimate decision.
Santos’ choice for the shortlist was always going to cause some problems. A Prosecutor General can be a valuable ally to have, so in choosing his shortlist Santos had to consider not only which candidates would be loyal and fit for the job, but who else he wanted to please.
Among the full list of candidates there were reportedly three political big fish: Yesid Reyes, the Minister of Justice; Jorge Perdomo, the vice Prosecutor General; and Nestor Humberto Martinez, the former First Minister under Santos.
However, to satisfy quotas the shortlist must contain at least one woman. Therefore, one of the three heavyweights was always going to miss out, since Santos could only put three names on the shortlist.
In the event, Santos dropped Perdomo. His shortlist was Yesid Reyes, Nestor Humberto and Monica Cifuentes, who is an important figure in the ongoing peace talks with FARC rebels.
He would certainly have been expecting tremors in the wake of his decision, but this has been more like an earthquake.
The morning after the shortlist was announced, Maria Lorena Gutierrez, the president’s right-hand woman in the cabinet, resigned just as Santos was stepping up to give his speech at the UN drug summit in New York.
Gutierrez was one of the most powerful people in the government. She was a secretary by title but a minister by power, a disciplined micromanager who bossed the cabinet. But above all she way loyal to a fault. In losing her, Santos has lost a key ally.
Santos’ secretary announced that her resignation was the result of exhaustion after years in government. Santos rushed back from New York and announced that it was all part of the plan — he had intended to reshuffle his cabinet for a post-conflict Colombia anyway.
However, in spite of their attempts to paint it otherwise, it seems more likely that this was an unexpected and significant blow for the President.
Why did Gutierrez resign?
Tensions had reportedly been rising in the cabinet for some time.
There has been a rift between vice president German Vargas Lleras and those closest to the president, led by Gutierrez, who feel that the VP has been promoting his own agenda rather than pushing in the same direction as everyone else. He has, for example, been conspicuously silent about the controversial peace treaty.
They felt that, sooner or later, Vargas would betray Santos, exactly like Santos betrayed Uribe before.
Local media reported that Santos had discussed the Prosecutor General shortlist with Gutierrez extensively until the last few days before he handed it in. Then he marginalized her and took the decisions himself.
His decision to include Nestor Humberto Martinez would have shocked Gutierrez and may have been what triggered her resignation.
Gutierrez and and Martinez clashed repeatedly during his time in the cabinet as First Minister, and he ended up resigning after just ten months.
Moreover, Martinez is a long-standing friend and ally of Vargas Lleras, so to her Santos’ decision to put him on the shortlist was yet another concession to the VP.
Until then, Santos had remained fairly neutral between Gutierrez and Vargas Lleras. Gutierrez was fighting his corner, but he appeared to want to avoid the same old story of conflict between president and vice-president.
However, something changed, and Santos suddenly went against Gutierrez.
Why did Santos choose the shortlist he did?
His shortlist for the Prosecutor General was politically motivated, choosing the candidates of allies rather than names with less political connections but more suited to the job.
A Prosecutor General should be as independent as possible. Someone like Martinez is an establishment figure and has plenty of friends in the business world, so he is far from an ideal candidate in that respect.
But Santos has terrible approval ratings and he knows that his best hope to limp through to end of his presidency is to keep his coalition sweet. With a bit of real politicking, he will try to hold together a coalition strong enough to complete the peace treaty and see him through until 2018.
He has pandered to Vargas Lleras with the inclusion of Martinez in the shortlist and he has tolerated Vargas Lleras’ all but official presidential campaigning. So it looks like Santos may be aligning himself with Vargas Lleras for political reasons.
Did Santos miscalculate?
In aligning himself with Vargas Lleras, Santos would have known he was going against Gutierrez. But it seems like he had little idea that she would resign over it. This is a political cost he may not have anticipated.
Moreover, he has jeopardised his coalition too. In the form of Martinez, German Vargas got his candidate. But the Liberal party did not get theirs.
The ex-president Cesar Gaviria was so incensed by Perdomo’s omission from the list that he refused to join Santos in New York for the UN drug summit. Horacio Serpa, co-leader of the liberals, threatened that they would leave the coalition. On Tuesday morning, they made good on that threat. Now Santos is dealing with a coalition crisis.
It seems like Santos may have miscalculated what he stood to lose with his shortlist, but more mysterious is the other side of the equation: what did Santos hope to gain?
Pleasing Vargas Lleras appears to have suddenly become a priority, and it is not immediately clear why. Something is going on behind closed doors in the Casa de Nariño.
Whatever Santos’ reasons, on the surface this has been another rough week for a desperately unpopular president. What is clear, though, is that one person in particular has come out of the chaos rather well: Vargas Lleras. For him, 2018 looks brighter than ever.