More than a year after a far-stretching political reform that sought to balance powers in Colombia, the country’s Senate surprisingly approved a bill that effectively strengthens the executive branch in election campaigns.
At the moment, sitting officials like the president, ministers, judges and members of the military are not allowed to get involved in elections in the six months ahead of a popular vote.
If officials do get involved and, for example, endorse a candidate, they risk being barred from holding public office. If they want to run for office, they must resign a year ahead of the vote.
This ban is supposed to prevent government officials from using their prominent position in power for their own electoral benefit.
However, in the 2014 political reform debate, one peculiar clause appeared that disallowed sitting officials to run for president, with the exception of the vice president, a position currently filled by the ambitious dynasty politician German Vargas (Radical Change).
The tiny clause was removed after protests by other presidential hopefuls, who managed to uphold the law that forces Vargas to step down one year before elections to avoid him abusing his position of power if he wants to run for president.
But earlier this week, the Senate’s First Committee surprisingly put the ban up for a vote again and, with virtually no opposition, approved to revoke parts of the Balance of Powers reform.
With only one exception, earlier opponents had made a 180 degree turn and voted in favor of the controversial bill or simply stayed away from the vote.
Proponent Roy Barreras, an important power broker from President Juan Manuel Santos‘ U Party, was able to convince his colleagues to allow Vargas to run for president while still vice-president by introducing a renewed version of the controversial clause that apparently appeased the other presidential hopefuls.
While members of the military and the judicial branch continue to be barred from running for president, a member of the executive branch, including the vice-president, no longer has to leave office to be allowed to run for president, according to the bill now pushed to the Senate’s primary.
The bill is particularly controversial because Colombia’s political system is notoriously corrupt and exclusive.
More than once, public funds ended up in the campaign budgets of candidates with access to the “mermelada” or “jam,” the slush funds used to illegally buy votes and finance campaigns.
The bill was pushed through the senate commission only days after party leaders and the government agreed to push another political reform bill that seeks to spread administrative power, and in effect the jam, to members of the opposition.
Only one senator maintained his opposition to granting sitting officials the right to take part in elections, Alexander Lopez of leftist opposition party Polo Democratico.
“Without modifying the Colombian electoral system, which is vulnerable and lends itself for fraud, it’s a major mistake allowing public officials to campaign and endorse candidates,” Lopez said on his website.
To allow public officials to take part in campaigning would only further damage democracy. Corruption will increase in Colombia as entire armies [of campaign workers] would be paid for by the state from city halls, governor’s offices and other spheres within the state.
Senator Alexander Lopez
According to Lopez, the pending bill seeks to strengthen he political chances of those already in power, and “destroys the little democracy left and eliminates the opposition, minorities and the social movements who have no power in the state apparatus.”
All other present senators, of both the coalition and the conservative opposition, supported the bill that still awaits a series of debates before potentially becoming law.
Meanwhile, the vice-president went on his Bob Dylan-like never-ending tour, cutting ribbons and opening public works throughout Colombia.