Colombians keep discussing what occurred last week in UNASUR, another
major political event is about to take place. The referendum that could
open the door for President Uribe’s third term will probably be passed in the House of Representatives. The tale of this referendum is the tale of the living dead. One month ago, Semana and many uribistas dared announce that the referendum’s passage in Congress was all but impossible. That’s all folks. Finito. Alvaro Uribe would not be able to run for the presidency for a third time.
Now, it is another story. Mr. Uribe
showed how much influence he can have by bringing the referendum back
to life. After a few meetings with members of his coalition in
Congress, he was capable of having a majority of lawmakers stand behind
the single, most controversial piece of legislation in four years. Of
course, as I wrote last week, the referendum should be dead, but given
that it still is alive and kicking, let us remember the few ways in which it could be returned to the grave.
First, there is the Constitutional Court. Semana’s Maria Jimena Duzán believes that only until February will the Court decide upon the constitutionality of the referendum. Although
the Court is considered to sympathize with the President (unlike the
Supreme Court, which has taken the principle of separation of powers to
a whole new level), it is difficult to say whether the members of the
Court will want to put at stake their credibility as an independent
body by supporting the
President’s ambition. Inversely, one could argue that the Court
justices will not dare stand against the most powerful, popular politician
in Colombia’s recent history. However, if the Court kills the
referendum, that will be an act of political bravery (and juridical
lucidity) that will show the strength of Colombia’s institutions. Let
us hope the justices have some backbone.
Yet, should the justices fail to protect the Constitution, there are several more traps in the referendum’s path. Colombia’s
National Electoral Council has sent several warnings that the funds
used for the collection of signatures for the referendum did not comply
with law. It has become clear that the organizers of the referendum did
not respect the size limits regarding donations, and there is evidence
that David Murcia Guzman, an infamous money launderer, helped with the
transportation of the
signatures after their collection. These possible violations to the law
led the Supreme Court to open an investigation regarding 80-odd
who voted for the referendum with the knowledge that the legality of
the process of signature collection had not been established. Understandably,
many of these Congressmen are scared of what the Supreme Court might do
against them, which could make more than one hesitate about voting for
the approval of the referendum. Moreover, if a competent authority
demonstrates that there were violations to the law in the collection of
signatures for the referendum, the Government would enter into a major
legitimacy problem, while trying to gather enough votes for an
initiative that was illegal.
let us assume that the House of Representatives will pass the
referendum, that the Constitutional Court will deem it in agreement
with the Constitution, that the warnings of the National Electoral
Council will fall on deaf ears, and that the threats of the Supreme
Court will end up in nothing. Uribe’s possible
third term in office would still have its most difficult test ahead.
For the referendum to be valid, one quarter of the electoral census
(7.1 million of around 28 million voters) would have to vote that day.
if fewer than 7.1 million Colombians go to the ballot box on the day of
the referendum, the initiative will fail and the Constitution won’t be
altered. The President would be limited to two terms in office.
Yes, Mr. Uribe received almost 7.4 million votes in 2006, when he last ran for the presidency, but this does not necessarily mean that he can
handsomely reach the 7.1 million threshold for this referendum to pass.
Colombia is a country characterized by voter abstentionism, and many of
us who were in favor of Mr. Uribe’s
first reelection are against a prospective second one. The battle for
votes will be harsh, and the parties who oppose reelection will
campaign intensely so that people do not vote on that day. The
government will have to fight until the very last moment in order to
have Mr. Uribe stay in power, and the battle is just starting.
Only time will tell whether this zombie is more alive that dead, or vice versa. What
is certain is that both the government and those who oppose the
initiative will use their dirtiest tactics in order to achieve their
goal. It is a game of lies, strategy and raw power. The type of
political bargaining that has already started to occur may well be one
that Colombians are not ready to stomach. However, politicians should
remember that the last word is in the hands of the voters, and that if
they overreach themselves trying to obtain what they want at all cost,
those same voters will make them pay in the future.