Colombia has been a constitutional republic for decades, but the quality of the country’s democracy has traditionally been very low when measuring along the lines of participation, representation, accountability, transparency and solidarity.
Add the fact that power struggles in Colombia have long gone hand-in-hand with violence, either through competition between political elites, the repression of opposition, or by attempts at overthrowing the establishment.
Colombia’s transition from a feudal-like system ruled by elites represented by two political parties to a functional democratic state is a work in progress and is long from being finished.
In order to reach a quality democracy, Colombia first had to break from a traditional two-party hegemony.
Before the 1991 constitution, Colombia was run, through pseudo-elections, by the Conservative and Liberal parties. Even though this duopoly was officially ended by this latest constitution, and a number of armed opposition forces were included in the democratic process, it wasn’t until 2001, during Uribe’s presidential campaign, that Colombia started breaking from its past.
First, Uribe left his Liberal Party to successfully run as an independent candidate, drawing support from several sectors in society and becoming Colombia’s first independent president.
Following those decisive 2002 elections, Colombia started encouraging peaceful political participating through democratic opposition.
The development of the notion of how to democratically oppose a government or how to democratically deal with opposition is one of the key issues when it comes to further constructing Colombian democracy and peace.
Uribe’s 2002 to 2010 presidency sparked the development of Colombia’s democratic opposition, at that time led by the centrist Liberal Party and the leftist Polo Democratico.
This opposition was primarily parliamentary and couldn’t count on too much popular support to back the legislative resistance to the president’s right-wing policies.
Uribe wasn’t particularly professional about dealing with his opposition. In fact, his response to critics was often hostile, authoritarian and aggressive. In the end, Uribe really lost control and his government began violating all legal boundaries when letting his intelligence agency spy on critics and even the Supreme Court.
President Santos, while behaving a lot more maturely and professionally than his predecessor, is still relatively clumsy in integrating a strong opposition to the political landscape, common in many of the world’s democracies.
When the sitting president took office in 2010, he formed the “Coalition of National Unity” which included the Liberal Party and received the blessing of the controversial National Integration Party, and made up an astonishing 95% of the seats in Congress, basically and foolishly eliminating any serious political opposition. The president called this ‘governability’ but it crushed debate and led to the passing of poor legislation.
Santos’ government returned all the traditional Bogota elites to power, completely ignoring Uribe’s electoral base and returning to the elitist governance Colombia had abandoned when voting for Uribe in 2002 and 2006. The president obviously received little opposition because the opposition occupied only 5% of seats in Congress.
So, for criticism on government policies, Colombia had little to expect from Congress. Instead, any protest or potential mending of the government’s ways has come from the public arena.
The first important step towards improving bad policies was the 2011 student uprising which forced Santos to repeal an education reform that received no opposition in Congress.
The second important step is the one we are witnessing now: Uribe’s breaking with the powers that be and, through the channels available to him, criticizing what is happening in the presidential palace and Congress.
The former president’s insistence on participating in political life and his increasingly vocal opposition to Santos is a crucial step in the ongoing evolution of Colombia’s democracy. It is vital for the health of Colombia’s democracy that the government is criticized from both the left and the right.
With the re-entry of Uribe, Colombia’s political arena now consists of a center-right government with a parliamentary opposition from both the left and a more radical right in Congress. Outside Congress, it is facing increasingly emancipated civilian movements like that of the students on the left and Uribe and his following on the right, increasing civilian participation in politics.
This means that if Santos and his oppositional adversaries on both the left and the right continue acting in a democratic and peaceful manner, Uribe’s addition will contribute to the further development of Colombia as a plural and functional democracy and will provide the Colombian state with the necessary checks and balances needed to come to good governance.