Colombian Constitutional Court passes presidential re-election

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Álvaro Uribe Vélez, current Colombian president, may extend his period until 2010.

The Colombian Constitutional Court has approved an amendment to allow presidential re-election, which was not possible before under the country's 1991 Constitution. The decision was made public by Manuel José Cepeda, president of the Constitutional Court, on Wednesday at 18:45 (23:45 UTC). Cepeda said: "The court has decided to declare as reasonable within the Constitution the legislative act allowing the re-election of the president of the republic".

The complete decision consists of 18 sentences, the result of 62 votes regarding 18 lawsuits which had been presented to the Court against the presidential re-election project, a reform approved in December 2004 by the Colombian Congress.

This constitutional reform has given the current president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the possibility to enter the presidential election in May 2006 and makes possible for the Colombian people to re-elect him if they so choose. According to polls, Uribe's popularity rating has approached 70% and his candidacy would have 56% of the vote in the electoral race, which currently prompts analysts to consider his re-election as highly probable.

For the majority of the nine judges who make up the Constitutional Court, the amendment that reforms the Constitution doesn't violate its spirit and is in agreement with it, besides having been approved with the required debates and accurate legislative procedures, and the Colombian Congress did have the faculty to process and approve the reform. The Court's deliberations lasted four and a half weeks, a time during which most of the political activity of the country, facing legislative elections in March and a presidential race in May, was practically paralyzed.

Nevertheless, in order for the re-election project to be fully implemented, the "Electoral Guarantees Law" must be approved. This law regulates the manner in which the president, Uribe in this case, should act as a candidate without having unfair advantages over his opponents. The reform project was approved in June but, according to the Solicitor General's concept, made public in early September, it should be returned to Congress for modifications because it has "serious gaps, deficiencies and essential contradictions which infringe the Constitution". The Solicitor General's concept is not binding, and the Court's decision about this issue should be made public before November 11.

The voting

Issue For Against
Constitutionality of immediate presidential reelection and of the Colombian Congress's faculties to include it in the Constitution 7 2
Constitutionality of Congressmen and Congresswomen's recusations and of the impediment procedures of the First Commissions (of Senate and House) and plenary sessions. 6 3
Inconstitutionality of the faculties granted to the State Council to issue the "Electoral Warranties Law" if Congress would not issue it. 8 1
Constitutionality of the guarantees granted to the opposition during the 8 debates concerning the amendment during the Commissions and plenary sessions in Congress. 6 3
Constitutionality of the Court's competence to check the amendment's contents and safeguard the spirit of the 1991 Colombian Constitution 7 2
Constitutionality of the settlement of the approved texts by the plenary sessions of the House of Representatives and the Senate. 6 3

Source: "Texto completo del comunicado de la Corte sobre la reelección" — El Tiempo (Colombia), October 20, 2005

The controversy

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Since last September, Colombia had been expecting the Constitutional Court's decision. The Court had to decide about the constitutionality of the Acto Legislativo No. 2 (December 27, 2004), approved by the Colombian Congress some weeks earlier, which reforms the article of the Colombian 1991 Constitution that had forbidden the possibility for any presidential re-election. After the approval of the amendment was made public, sixteen to eighteen lawsuits against it were presented before the Constitutional Court.

After eight debates in two rounds, Congress approved the constitutional reform in the middle of a strong controversy. Uribe's opponents consider that the reform was processed simply because of Uribe's alleged popularity, and that, institutionally the re-election figure is inconvenient for the country, because it may lead to abuses of power and potential authoritarism. Critics also say that Uribe's management of social affairs has been lacking, question Uribe's alleged "softness" towards the AUC's paramilitaries, which are in a demobilization process, and also accuse him of "already campaigning instead of governing". Critics have also questioned the government's negotiations -together with Peru and Ecuador- of an Andean Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo, a political opponent of the administration, even suggested that a trial could be held against Uribe for "treason" if the trade agreement was signed under highly unfavorable conditions, after Uribe publicly declared his desire to speed up the end of the negotiations.

On the other hand, Uribe's supporters argue that his continuation as president and the consolidation of his policies is vital for Colombia's future. The Colombian national daily El Tiempo expressed in an August 28, 2005 editorial its support by saying "in today's Colombia, Álvaro Uribe is a leader quite hard to replace", despite also pointing out several of its criticisms against his administration. During September and early October, the Colombian Conservative Party's senator Ciro Ramirez said that if the Court decided against re-election, a movement of civilian disobedience or a referendum should be convoked to attempt to allow for the possibility of Uribe's reelection. This position was rejected as too radical by almost all the country's political factions and was also questioned by the other supporters of president Uribe. Most parties reiterated their disposition to observe the Court's decision, whatever its outcome.

The Constitutional Court had to decide about possible procedure and formal errors during the discussion of the amendment (Acto Legislativo) in Congress, as well as the legislative's competence to process that reform. Some analysts argued that there had been errors, that the debate had not been fully accomplished and that several of Uribe supporter's employed clientelist tactics to achieve the amendment's approval. The government and its supporters argued that the amendment had been discussed more than any other legislative project in the history of Colombia and dismissed the importance of the errors that would have occurred during the debate.

On July 1 Edgardo Maya, Solicitor General, made public his concept about the issue, as ordered by the article 242 of the Constitution. Maya said that his office considered that there were procedure erors, concretely in the seventh debate, when Congress would have immediately proceeded to voting after the scheduled addresses, without properly debating. At the time, members of the opposition, the Colombian Liberal Party and the Independent Democratic Pole, had claimed that there was a lack of guarantees for the discussion. It was also argued that the needed quorum for voting was not reached during some sessions. Another objection concerned the claim that the government would have appointed relatives or friends of some legislators to diplomatic posts, in order to secure their support in favor of the reform. Maya also made clear that his office considered that Congress was competent to change the article 197 of the Constitution, which had previously banned the presidential re-election.

The suspense around the decision was high. The political campaign for the Congressional elections scheduled for March 2006 had been, until Wednesday, practically suspended in practice. If the re-election ban wasn't lifted, some Congressmen, including Uribe supporter Germán Vargas Lleras -who was recently victim of an attempt against his life-, for example, could have become presidential candidates.

Reactions

  • "The Congress of Colombia and the Constitutional Court, with their autonomous decisions, have developed the important issue in the 1991 Constitution of leaving sovereignty to the people. (...) The presidential re-election implies more responsibilities with the people than with history. (...) I'm not going to let myself be tempted by vanities", Álvaro Uribe Vélez, president of Colombia.
  • "I had said that whatever the Court's decision was, as a respectable institution, I would observe it, but I can't agree with it. [The decision's implications for the country] are negative. We don't support re-election in the terms it was approved. We fear that Uribe's (political) proposal may be successful for more time.": Carlos Gaviria Díaz, former Constitutional Court magistrate and left-wing presidential candidate.
  • "The Court was able to put the institutions over any passion and intrigue. Because of the qualities of the justification, it gives us the warranty they voted consciously": Antanas Mockus, former National University of Colombia director, former Mayor of Bogotá and independent presidential candidate.
  • "I think the Court evaded the issue of equality, saying it didn't have to do a content control on the Constitution, but I fully observe the decision. (...) It's a long-term change, it's not simply to re-elect one president. I think the pains of this decision will be felt in the future, because the ex-presidents have been resurrected": Antonio Navarro Wolff, Independent Democratic Pole's presidential candidate.
  • "I really can just say now we're a democracy and we must observe the Court's decision. (...) For equality it's necessary that governors and mayors to be able to aspire for the presidency": Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá and presidential candidate.
  • "I respect and observe the Constitutional Court's decision that allows presidential re-election. Besides, I invite all the Colombian people to do the same. (...) The most immediate implication is the opening of the electoral process. A contradiction between two alliances is next": Horacio Serpa Uribe, Colombian Liberal Party presidential pre-candidate.
  • "We observe the Court's decision. We censor the intimidatory voices from the government coalition's spokespersons. (...) We're going to have immediate re-election and that change is crucial because, besides the president, the civil servants will also be making politics": César Gaviria Trujillo, former president of Colombia, former OAS general secretary and Colombian Liberal Party chief.
  • "I'm sure the financial market will wake up as quiet as in previous days. I clearly understand that this decision is favorable for the Colombian economy, which is having an excellent moment. (The decision) generates tranquility and consolidates economy's good moment": Alberto Carrasquilla, Colombian finance minister.
  • "All the "Uribism" wins, its ideas, its political positions and its people, because they guarantee through the re-election that they'll continue in power. At the beginning, the ex-presidents may win too, because they could become candidates. It may be expected that presidential candidates, such as Horacio Serpa, may withdraw their aspirations, and the possibility may become open for Gaviria to become a candidate. The political system loses because power becomes customized for (the benefit of) a single person": Jaime Castro, former Mayor of Bogotá and political analist.
  • "The big winners would be the will of the majority of Congress, in this Constitutional reform, and of course, the president of the republic": Juan Manuel Charry, constitutionalist.
  • "It's not ethical that the president can be a candidate at the same time that he's spending the public resources in his campaign": Carlos Rodríguez, from the Workers' Unitary Central.
  • "The Court shouldn't pass a re-election attached to a proper name, one which did not consider the re-election of governors and mayors": Julio Roberto Gómez, from the Workers' General Confederation.
  • "The president can control the Bank of the Republic and the control institutions. Re-election is not good for Colombia because we might fall into an authoritarian presidential regime": Camilo González Posso, from the NGO "Instituto para el Desarrollo y la Paz".
  • "As for the traders guild, we like the re-election in order to be able to elect a person who has been a good president": Guillermo Botero, president of the National Federation of Traders (Fenalco).

Sources

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