Colombia´s Congressmen have won a whopping $4,000 (dollar) increase in take home pay.
Last night Santos used the presidential decree to deliver this eye-watering pay rise, caving into pressure caused by a week-long strike that crippled the legislature.
Vital government business was sidelined as senators and house representatives refused to turn up to work, enacting what is known as the “tortoise plan”, a form of filibustering based on absenteeism.
Politicians are exploiting weakness at the heart of a regime that over the summer months has struggled to contain civil unrest, and has seen a recent collapse in its public support.
Nationwide strikes, scepticism at the peace talks with the FARC in Havana, and a gloomy economic outlook, have combined in a perfect storm for Santos, who must next month announce whether he intends to run for re-election next May.
Scenting blood, congressmen are playing a game of chicken with the government, determined to back Santos into a corner. Rebels sense they now have leverage over the government´s political agenda.
But Santos´authority is being challenged not only politically but on technical and administrative issues. Yesterday`s decision to award the bumper 8 million peso pay out is a major u-turn for Santos, having been forced to go back on a decision to cut pay he had made just days earlier – and to great fanfare in the media.
Commentators are beginning to express concern for Santos’ future, with former President Andres Pastrana´s claiming his successor is now a “lame duck”.
Pastrana might be exaggerating, but Santos is certain now damaged goods.
Until recent months Santos`three years in charge had been characterised by a weak and virtually unanimous (in his favour) congress. Santos´national coalition government in theory controls over 90% of parliament, but as elections approach, the unity of the group looks increasingly fractured.
Conservatives are said to want out, but are waiting to see whether Santos decides to run again.
Meanwhile Santos`capitulation is being widely condemned by Colombians who see a congress increasingly out of touch with the realities of life in a nation in which average pay is little more than $700. Social media users have rounded on what they see as greed, and incompetence on the Capitolio.
The protest group, the Tomato Party have called a “cacerolazo” – a protest where pots and pans are bashed loudly – against the congress tonight, while others make the case for the impeachment of the entire legislature.
But Colombians´anger is not just restricted to the issue of pay. The nation`s wrath has been stoked by their representatives refusal to debate new health laws.
Last week the government tabled a bill designed to deliver major reform of Colombia´s ailing health service. Health is said to be one of the voters`top issues as discontent with a corrupt and inefficient current system is high.
Failure to give the bill its first reading in parliament last week is being seen by voters as a sign of congress´egotisim and detachment from the rest of the country.
Today, with their pockets bulging, politicians made their way back to parliament to begin work on the bill.
Colombia Politics view
President Santos looks weaker by the day as he loses control of parliament and public opinion. The commander in chief appears to be following rather than leading the agenda.
Public opinion of congress has been low for years. This congress is seen as more inept than the previous group which was plagued by paramilitary scandals.
Colombians unhappy with their representatives have the opportunity to kick them out of power next March. The question is, however, whether a usually apathetic electorate will finally react.
Sadly, corruption and vote-buying will help ensure at least some of the discredited politicians will survive this public outcry.
A high turn out – something uncharacteristic in national or local votes – may help send a message to those at the top. We`re not holding our breath.
Kevin is a political consultant and lobbyist who cut his teeth working in the UK Parliament. He is a regular panelist on Colombian television, a political communication strategist and a university lecturer. Kevin is the founder and editor of Colombia Politics.