Senator Horacio Serpa, co-director of the liberal party, went to meet with President Juan Manuel Santos to express his party’s unhappiness over the new cabinet and the Prosecutor General candidates announced by the president announced just days ago.
“What we want is to be done with the coalition as a species of political pipe-dream that joins a few parties to lend support to the government or to peace. We, the liberals, don’t need this ornament to support peace and don’t need the coalition to have relations with the government,” Serpa said.
Why the liberals are angry
The liberals are angry for a number of reasons, some of which have been bugging them for a long time.
For one, the new cabinet appointments aggravated them. The president’s reshuffle has come in the midst of an economic slowdown and ahead of a possible peace treaty with the FARC rebels. Santos claims it is a cabinet to bring a post-conflict Colombia together.
He appointed the leaders of leading leftist and conservative opposition parties as ministers. He also attempted to diversify a cabinet typically dominated by the Bogota elite by including politicians from other departments, and added the first black minister in his six-year government.
However, the liberals were annoyed that they were kept in the dark about the reshuffle. Moreover, they now only have five ministers, instead of six, as Yesid Reyes made way for the Green Alliance’s Jorge Londoño, the new Minister of Justice.
The liberals were also dismayed when Santos selected the lawyer Nestor Ignacio Martinez for the shortlist for Prosecutor General, instead of the candidate they supported, Jorge Fernando Perdomo.
On the surface it was a strange decision from Santos, whose right-hand-woman Maria Lorena Gutierrez seems to have resigned as a direct consequence of he appointment of the Radical Change candidate.
Martinez had been appointed Santos’ “superminister” in 2015 but left after just ten months. Officially he left to steer his law firm through a merger, but it is widely known that he and Gutierrez were on either side of a rift between the liberals and Vargas.
Martinez is a long-standing friend and ally of the vice-president, who is widely expected to run for president in 2018. Given that the liberals have long been annoyed by a perceived bias towards Radical Change in the government, this would only have added to their suspicions.
The liberals believe that Vargas has spent his time in office campaigning for the 2018 elections already, and having the Prosecutor General as a close ally only makes his position stronger.
Additionally, the vice president has disassociated himself with unpopular peace talks with leftist FARC rebels, negotiations supported by the government and Liberal Party.
“[German Vargas] is a presidential candidate and it would be convenient for everyone if he just admitted it and jumped in the deep end at once.”
Senator Horacio Serpa
In spite of their threat to leave the coalition, the liberals were quick to reassure that this would not effect their position on the peace talks. They have been doggedly loyal to the talks throughout the last four years, and they will continue to pursue peace.
This stands in contrast to Vargas who, as vice-president, has been conspicuously quiet about the peace talks. Instead of putting his neck out on such contentious issues, he has been keeping quiet, and has been on a Bob Dylan-like never-ending tour through Colombia, showing his face at virtually every occasion where a ribbon needs cutting.
One thing the liberals will do if they leave the coalition is be more vocally critical of the government, Vargas included
It will free them up to pursue their own agenda for the 2018 elections. However, those elections look bleak for the liberal party. They have been very loyal to Santos, and Santos is slowly becoming toxic because of his abysmal approval ratings.
Moreover, by the time elections are held in 2018, vices of a peace process with the FARC will have surfaced by then, making both Santos and the liberals easy bait.
Additionally, the sale of the government’s majority stake of energy company ISAGEN has tainted by association.
Liberals not giving up minister positions
In the meantime, if the Liberal Party left the coalition their ministers would stay in their cabinet positions.
Serpa’s claim that their relations with the government would be unchanged is a little disingenuous: of course it would raise tensions and reduce cooperation.
The liberals could cause serious problems for Santos’s government by hand-picking which policy to support. However, the reverse is also true.
It is unclear whether Serpa’s threat is hollow or not. The liberals have made similar noises in the past without acting on them. However, the Conservative Party did leave Santos’s coalition in 2014, keeping a few ministerial posts, so it has happened before and could further erode Santos’ ability to govern.