18 December 2009
Colombia's efforts to resolve its half-century armed conflict and growing tensions with neighbours will be shaped by the decision on whether to change the constitution to enable President Álvaro Uribe to seek a second re-election in May 2010. This issue has dominated Colombian politics for over a year. Most appear to back a third term, seeing Uribe as the only politician with the credibility and capacity to maintain security gains and broaden economic well-being after August, when his mandate ends. His supporters believe he has demonstrated strong leadership in times of escalating regional tensions, especially with Venezuela and Ecuador. Others fear another change in the constitution and four more years of Uribe's rule will further weaken democratic judicial and legislative institutions and essential checks and balances. They warn that the process of enabling a second consecutive re-election has been plagued by irregularities and allegations of corruption and that a third term could result in continuation of a too narrow security strategy focused on elusive final military defeat of the insurgent FARC and ELN.
To enable Uribe's second re-election, a new constitutional amendment must be approved by referendum. A law governing such a referendum was adopted on 1 September 2009. The Constitutional Court is reviewing the new law with respect to both procedures and constitutionality. Its decision whether Uribe can stand for a third term is expected to come only weeks or even days before the March 2010 legislative elections. If the referendum is authorised, passage requires participation by a quarter of the electorate of about 29 million voters and a majority of affirmative votes. Uribe would then have to win re-election in the general poll. The president has avoided publicly discussing a third term but has hinted at standing in 2010 to ensure continuation of his political project, in particular the security policy.
After more than seven years in power, including re-election in 2006 with the benefit of a constitutional amendment that allowed him to stand again, Uribe's flagship security policy geared at defeating the insurgent FARC and ELN continues to be strongly supported by broad sectors in the country. However, the security environment is changing, as new illegal armed groups (NIAGs) emerge, some paramilitaries persist, the insurgents adapt to government military strategies, and efforts to combat drug trafficking that funds the insurgency and other armed groups achieve partial results but no breakthrough. Thus, the current security approach needs to be reviewed and adjusted by whomever sits in the presidential office for the next four years.
Uribe or any new president will need to broaden the strategy to address non-military aspects of the security agenda, including the root causes of the protracted conflict. These challenges include combating rural alienation through more effective development programs, strengthening the protection of human rights and developing a political framework for resolving the conflict. The new president must likewise repair battered relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, which have been characterised by worrying diplomatic stand-offs and sabre-rattling in recent times.
In addition to its effect on national security policy and conflict resolution, Colombians must be alert to the potential impact of a twelve-year presidency on the institutional structures that underpin their democracy. A third consecutive term would further increase the broad powers of the president to appoint - or influence the appointment of - the heads of supervisory and control institutions. Weakened checks and balances could affect citizens' rights and encourage official corruption. Confrontation and deep distrust between the executive and the Supreme Court risk delegitimising state action as a whole.
In the run-up to the March and May 2010 congressional and presidential elections, the government and other institutional and political actors should work together to reduce political polarisation and uncertainty. They also need to ensure the independence and guarantee the full and free functioning of oversight and electoral institutions, including the public prosecutor, the National Electoral Council (CNE), the ombudsman, the comptroller general, the national registry office, and the central bank board. The separation of power among the executive, judiciary and legislative branches must be upheld so as to reduce the possibility of accumulation of excessive powers in the executive, and the constitutional independence of the new attorney general has to be respected.