Santos Administration Proposes Political Reforms

Juan Fernando Cristo, Colombia’s Interior Minister, proposed a package of political reforms to Congress on February 14, including the elimination of the vice presidency, an extended presidential term, and other reforms aiming to increase voter participation and reduce electoral corruption.

Under the proposed changes, reported El País, the presidential term length increases from four to five years, as would the term lengths of Colombia’s mayors and governors. The reforms replace the position of vice president with the presidential designate, a historical office in Colombia that the 1991 constitution abolished. Although the designate has historically varied in form and function under Colombia’s many constitutions, for most of its history it was a presidential appointee chosen to succeed the president in case of his absence or death. Cristo argues that the replacement eliminates the possibility of tension between the president and vice president.

Cristo also proposed imposing mandatory voting in the next two election cycles and a decrease in the voting age requirement from 18 to 16. According to Semana, Cristo declared that the reforms would “expand participation and legitimize Colombian democracy.”

To attack corruption, Cristo proposed public funding for all political campaigns. The suggestion comes as both candidates of the 2014 presidential race, Óscar Iván Zuluaga and current President Juan Manuel Santos, face accusations of accepting bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. The nationwide scandal forced the consideration of possible anti-corruption legislation in order to restore faith in the government and stability.

Cristo’s most critical and controversial proposal to address electoral corruption is the adoption of the closed-list voting method. In this system, voters cast ballots for parties without control over or prior knowledge of who the candidates will be. The Interior Minister blamed the current voting system for forcing campaigns to hire advisers and run ads—in his words, “unsustainable expenses for a decent campaign.”

For now, it is uncertain whether or not the proposed politico-electoral reforms will be implemented successfully. In the past, however, similar proposals have been met with fierce opposition, including from Cristo himself.

The proposals divided Colombian representatives. The President of the Social Party of National Unity, President Santos’s party, expressed doubt that representatives elected by the preferential vote would be willing to support its replacement.

Other representatives accused the government of using political reform as a distraction. Alirio Uribe, a member of the Alternative Democratic Pole, called the reforms “a smokescreen” to take the public’s attention away from the ongoing Odebrecht allegations.

Although the potential successes and failures of the reform remain to be seen, the proposals could indicate a sweeping change in Colombian politics.