Controversy guaranteed: Colombia congress debating political reforms

Colombia’s government is debating a series of ambitious political reforms designed to open up political processes and weed out corruption. Controversy guaranteed.

The proposal includes extending the presidential term to five years with no reelection; eliminating the vice presidency; lowering the voting age to 16; imposing a mandatory vote; and a ban on private funding of political campaigns, among other reforms.

The reform are to increase the quality of the electoral process that is now often marred by high abstention rates and consequent vote-buying by political hopefuls.

A political reform that seeks an end to chronic political exclusion of leftists and minorities is part of the peace deal, which justified the proposal going through a congressional “fast-track” meant to speed up the peace process with Marxist FARC rebels.

Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo had led a “task force” that has sought to prepare political reform proposals to modernize Colombia’s highly dysfunctional and corrupt political system.

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“The time has come to make a peaceful revolution in Colombian politics,” Interior Minister Cristo said. “It is not enough to disarm the FARC with a peace agreement. We must take advantage of this historic moment to make the reforms we haven’t made in the last 26 years.”

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However, the proposed reforms have been met with skepticism across party lines, because they go contain major elements that are not in the peace deal.

Senator Carlos Fernando Motoa (Radical Change) told newspaper El Pais that only legislation directly related the peace deal may go through the shortened peace procedure.

Senator Ivan Duque of the opposition Democratic Center party called the plan to utilize the fast track mechanism an “abuse.”

Liberal Party Senator Horacio Serpa said he believed the timing of the proposal is wrong with little more than a year before new congressional and presidential elections.

Others questioned the timing of the proposal amid a swirling corruption scandal in which it has been alleged that the 2014 campaign of President Juan Manuel Santos was partly paid by slush money from Brazilian firm Odebrecht.

“This is a balloon to distract from the Odebrecht debate,” opposition Green Alliance senator and presidential hopeful Claudia Lopez said. Opposition representative Alirio Uribe (Democratic Pole) also called the proposal a “smokescreen” for the corruption allegations.

The government, however, sees a unique opportunity with the fast track mechanism to pass critical reforms.

“It is in the interest of the government that, beyond the FARC, we take advantage of the special legislative mechanism to carry out reforms, to legitimize the democracy and restore it’s credibility,” Cristo was quoted as saying by newspaper El Tiempo.

While aiming high with the proposals, the government appears relatively grounded in what it may be able to push through Congress.

“We won’t have all the proposals approved, but there will be a lot of discussion. We hope to make progress with the majority” of proposals in the reform, Cristo said.

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