Cometh the hour, cometh Germán


Is German Vargas Lleras about to emerge from the shadow of President Juan Manuel Santos and sweep to victory in next year`s election?

On 30 May 2010, German Vargas Lleras won a million and a half votes in the first round of Colombia`s presidential election.

The Cambio Radical hopeful had come a surprise third, beating candidates from Colombia`s big two traditional parties; Conservatives and Liberals.  The next day, I posted on Facebook, long before I had set up Colombia Politics, “German Vargas Lleras, 2014-2018”, in an allusion to the possible outcome of the next election.

Six and a bit months to go, and this is still a real possibility. Here`s why:

For months Vargas Lleras had led in the polls. In May he was even more popular than Alvaro Uribe, who is constitutionally prohibited from running, but who is now head and shoulders clear of all other politicians in Colombia.

If the election were held tomorrow, Vargas Lleras would beat not only President Santos, but also Uribe`s choice, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, and the left-wing alternatives of Clara Lopez and Antonio Navarro Wolff.

Vargas has dreamt of the top job since he was in short trousers. He has dedicated his life to the ascent of the greasy pole, for decades working his magic in corridors of power. Most recently he has been for three years straight, President Santos` “ministro estrella” or “star minister”.

In the first years of the Santos administration, Vargas pulled the strings for his boss in congress, setting the parliamentary agenda and whipping the National Unity coalition into shape. Latterly he has donned a hard hat to dish out free houses for the poor.

Vargas has been so good, so loyal and indispensible to President Santos, that the commander in chief has placed him in charge of the Santos re-election campaign.

Santos has tied his man so tightly to the ship that even if it sinks he will have no life boat. Or at least that is what Santos hopes. Earlier this year, the president set up Buen Gobierno, a form of think-tank-cum-campaign-headquarters, and swiftly dispatched his right-hand man to be its boss.

Impossible, Santos calculates, for the man leading the charge to extend the administration into a second term, to cut loose and go it alone.

But this is Colombia,  and politics here can often seem as scrupulous as the rotten boroughs of early 1800s England.

Rumours circulate that Vargas Lleras is pouring over the endless polling data that put him top; he faces a genuine crossroads moment.

President Santos has a week to announce whether he will run for re-election. If he decides to pass the buck – something virtually no one is predicting – Vargas will almost certainly inherit the crown. But even if Santos does run, Vargas could yet emerge.

Here are three or many scenarios that could encourage Vargas to pull the trigger.

What if Santos does not recover in the polls? At the moment the president is hugely unpopular and less than a third of Colombians will vote for him. In the first round of voting the spoilt ballots would beat the incumbent. If this does not change quickly, Santos is doomed.

What if the peace process with the FARC guerrillas goes awry? Could Santos really be re-elected if the talks collapse.

What happens if a new wave of protests – like those that brought the nation to a standstill in August – flares up? Coffee farmers and agriculture workers continue to complain of government broken promises, and it is not difficult to see how these or those against health reforms currently going through congress, would take to the streets again. Santos has shown himself incapable of handling such crises, can he really survive more public unrest?

Frankly, such is the antipathy, that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Colombians decide enough is enough, that Santos whatever the cost, should not be allowed four more years.

So come January once the Christmas festivities are out of the way and Santos has not improved in the polls. Or come March when congressional elections show Santos supporting parties have tanked.

What better time for Vargas Lleras to step forward and offer Colombians a bit of charismatic leadership?

Cometh the hour.

Read our political biography of German Vargas Lleras.

Santos in dock over bumper $4,000 congress pay deal


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.

Picture, Calinet.

80% label Colombia´s politicians “corrupt”


Colombians say corruption is worsening in a poll released today by anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, with politicians condemned as the worst culprits.

In a damning indictment on the way the country is run, 80 per cent of Colombians believe both the congress and the nation´s political parties have their snouts in the trough.

Faith in public institutions – across the board – is plummeting, with nearly half of those asked claiming that overall levels of corruption had increased significantly.

Nearly two thirds of Colombians believe the judiciary is engaged in improper practices, while 70 per cent right off the chicanery of government officials.

No high-profile public body escapes unscathed. The police, the military, and Colombia´s healthcare providers have lost the trust of over 50 per cent of the country.

What is the government doing to fix the problem?

President Santos began his period in office promising to stamp out the corrupt practices that have long put a break on the country´s progress. He signed off a series of laws designed to aid transparency and bring to justice those caught stealing from the public purse.

Despite this, Colombians remain highly sceptical of their representatives nearly half of whom in the 2006 to 2010 congress were investigated for their ties to paramilitaries, and 10% of whom in this parliament have been impeached.

And Transparency International´s March 2013 report also sees very little to cheer in Santos´reforms.

The new institutional reforms promoted by the government of President Santos—the new Anti-corruption Act of 2011, and the creation of a new Anti-corruption office in the Presidency—have not contributed to curbing corruption. To the contrary, in Transparency International´s 2012 Corruption Perception Index, the country received the worse score in ten years, going from 57 in 2002 to 94 in 2012.

Corruption in Colombia is not just the responsibility of those in power, however. 79% of Colombians believe they can oil the machine by bribing officials, and nearly a third admitted someone in their family had greased the palm of a policeman.

So should we worry about this, after all isn´t it just a poll?

Corruption is perceived to be getting worse in many countries, of course. Let us be honest; when asked, who really replies that they believe their politicians are getting cleaner, and more transparent? So perhaps we shouldn´t be too dismayed?

This might be true, but Colombia Politics believe that to ignore these figures as part of the flotsam and jetsam of modern life would be a mistake.

Ok, perceptions of corruption might be getting worse in Europe and elsewhere, but Colombia already starts from an unflattering position. She ranked alongside Mongolia and India in last year´s Transparency International corruption index.

That things are getting worse should sound alarm bells in the presidential palace. Juan Manuel Santos has staked much of his reputation on pulling the nation up by its bootstraps, forcing it to eat at the table with the big boys. He wants Colombia to be seen as a member of an emerging elite.

But so long as there is a perceived breakdown in the social contract between the people and their representatives, development will be stunted. Former presidential candidate and now Antioquia Governor, Sergio Fajardo famously said that corruption was the number one problem in Colombia.

Over the past weeks we have seen Brazilians take to the streets in their millions to force their government to act to root out corruption. Santos must fear that Colombians too will soon conclude enough is enough.


60% of Colombians against President Santos re-election

Sabanalarga Educación 03

Colombia President, Juan Manuel Santos faces an uphill struggle to secure his re-election in May 2014 with a poll this week released by Datexco revealing that just a quarter of Colombians would vote to keep in him the Casa de Nariño until 2018.

Opposition to the president´s government is growing, while support for his handling of the economy has plummeted, with just a third believing the nation´s finances are improving and a palty 20% approving of his measures to combat unemployment.

In fact, there is very little for Santos to cheer in the results which show citizen confidence in the administration´s totem issues is at an all time low. On security, just a third give the commander-in-chief a thumbs up, while only roughly the same number are confident of a succesful outcome to the Havana peace talks with the FARC.

On health over 70% of Colombians disapprove of the government´s work, while two thirds oppose policies on both the guerrillas and paramilitaries.

Polling is notoriously unpredictable in Colombia and different polling companies can often produce quite different pictures of the nation´s voting intentions. Nevertheless, the president´s top team should be worried as the Datexco figures come hot on the heels of the news that over half the nation is pessimistic about the direction in which the country is going.

And whether or not Datexco is within the margin of error is also largely irrelevant as Santos´inner circle will know well that this latest set of projections follows a trend.

When Santos entered the presidential palace his approval ratings were even higher than those enjoyed by former president Alvaro Uribe, with almost 90% behind the direction of the new government. But Santos´ popularity has been in virtual free fall since early summer last year when his government was heavily criticized for its failed attempt to reform the justice system. Sure, support picked up in August and September when Santos told the nation of his plans to enter into peace talks with the terrorist FARC guerrillas, but the president´s popular appeal quickly began its seemingly irreversible downwards trend in October/November when the talks began.

Colombia Politics´ view

Santos knows he cannot rely on public backing alone to keep him in power. He must use the full resources of the state, and he must rely on footsoldiers to conjure up the votes. Little surprise then that he announced two days ago his support for a plan put forward by governors and mayors to extend their term from four to six years.

Santos has said he will take the proposals to congress, with his backing. What better way to secure the much-needed support of regional politicians ahead of the electoral battle next year than give them such a coveted prize? What better way of encouraging these important local – and vote-winning – figures to line him up votes?

If Santos can bring together a major coalition of politicians he will be almost impossible to remove from office. I´ll scratch your back if you scratch mine, he appears to be saying.

Polls, public opinion…who cares? Votes are what counts, wherever they come from.


10% of Colombian Congress “impeached”


Colombia´s Congress returns later this month to the shocking news that 10 per cent of members have been forced to give up their seat in the legislature, either for corruption, criminal wrong-doing, or inappropriate conduct.

Of the 200 plus elected to the 2010-2014 congress, a scandalous 22 have been kicked out of office, and we have a year to go before elections take place to replace them.

Famous names include the highly controversial Piedad Cordoba who was banned for “collaborating” with the FARC, Ivan Moreno, brother of corrupt Bogotá Mayor Samuel Moreno who stands accused of illegally pocketing millions for dodgy contracts, and Piedad Zucardi for alleged links to Colombia´s right wing paramilitary groups.

Other more bizarre cases include Senator Merlano who was last year famously caught drink driving, and appeared (in a video recorded by the police) attempting to threaten officers to let him go on account of the size of his electorate… Yes, seriously, “do, you know who I am?”, Merlano was effecting shown to be saying.

Incredibly, among those on the black list include a former Senate President, Javier Cáceres, and a senator with one of the highest number of votes won in the 2010 election (almost 140,000), Dilian Francisca Toro.

Virtually no political party has been left untouched by the litany of offences, the U Party has ten deposed congressmen, the Liberals 5, the Conservatives 4, PIN 2, and the Polo Democrats 1.

It´s little surprise then that according to a Gallop poll, two thirds of Colombians view the congress negatively, a figure that is trending upwards. Not even during the parapolitics outrage of the last parliament, when the influence of the paramilitaries on the capitolio was laid bare, has the congress enjoyed so little public support.

Colombians appear to have grown tired of their politicians who in far too great a number have been shown to be inept, corrupt or criminal.

Congress must act to halt the decline in confidence Colombians have in their institutions. New recruits must be attracted to the legislature and politicians must be more closely scrutinised by the media, and the public. The history of Latin America´s politics tells us that caudillos and dangerous populists spring up when discontent is rife.

Colombia´s first woman president?


Colombian Conservative and former Uribe defence minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez on Wednesday announced her intention to run in next year´s presidential elections.

Ramírez must first gain the support of the Conservative bigwigs before her candidature is confirmed, but she is by a clear margin the best hope the party has of securing a meaningful representation in the race for the Casa de Nariño.

Conservative leader Efraín Cepeda is considering Ramírez´s move and also has to ponder whether to align his group with the Uribistas as Ramírez has said must happen.

In Bogotá last weekend ex-president Álvaro Uribe convened a group of his most loyal supporters to establish their strategy for an assault on the Capitolio in 2014. Uribe´s Vice-President Pacho Santos has claimed that his old boss is almost certain to head up a list of candidates for the senate, but there remains a greater level of uncertainty about who will emerge as a presidential candidate.

Many were pushing for Ramírez to be this person. She is perhaps the most visible and respected politician running on a platform of the “Democratic Security” doctrine that defined Uribe´s eight years in power. But Ramírez is committed to her old party.

In launching her campaign, Ramírez has muted the idea of a coalition of the Conservative Party and Uribe´s Centro Democratico movement, a concept that could force apart President Santos´ National Unity government and bring together a powerful right-wing block to face the more centrist Santistas.

Cepeda must consider if and when it is right to pull out of the government. There will be resistance from those enjoying the trappings of  power, but it is a move he must dare to pull off. The Conservative Party has flirted with irrelevance following a disastrous campaign in the presidential elections in 2010 and regional elections in 2011.

A once proud party that shared power with the Liberals, the Conservatives have in recent years appeared to allow themselves to be sidelined and defined by accusations of rank corruption and by issues – like and outright ban on abortion, and anti-gay marriage promises – that have little resonance within the electorate.

Marta Lucía Ramírez is very much an acceptable face of Conservatism. Given her Defence Minister past she is a worthy adversary to Juan Manuel Santos on security issues. But Ramírez´s advantage is that she has not allowed herself to be defined – as have many Uribistas – by her position on war and peace, but instead has built a reputation as an authoratative voice on the economy.

In a series of tweets since her announcement, Ramírez decided to focus not on the peace talks with the FARC, but on the Santos government´s preparedness for the FTA with the US, and the productivity of the so-called “locomotives” of the economy.

Colombia is entering the pre-election period. The battlefield is beginning to define itself. Marta Lucía is a very real presidential candidate, one with the potential to coalesce support on the right.

How to prevent another Mayor Gustavo Petro

A Colombian casts his ballot during legislative elections in Bogota

Colombian Senator Juan Lozano this month launches a campaign to change the way mayors are elected in Colombia’s cities, helping to prevent future victories for leaders as unpopular as Bogotá’s Gustavo Petro.

Lozano will present a new bill “as soon as congress returns”, which if passed, would force candidates to face a “second round run-off” should they fail to secure more than 45% of the vote. Petro famously won only a third of the votes in the 2010 Bogotá race, as a slew of establishment candidates split the field. Had Petro needed to face a head-to-head battle he would almost certainly have lost, as candidates coalesced in opposition to his controversial brand of government.

Were Lozano’s plans to get the go ahead from parliamentarians, eight mayoral races are expected to be affected, although as population rises continue, this number has the potential to increase in future years.

Senator Lozano believes this legislation is necessary to avoid the concentration of power in the unelectable. According to the once president of Juan Manuel Santos’ U Party,  the changes will force candidates to present government programmes that have appeal beyond their “base”. In the case of Petro, for example, it is often argued that he has failed to govern for the whole of Bogotá, choosing instead to concentrate on what he considers to be his natural supporters. As a result, Petro has polarized the capital when a strong and uniting leadership is required after years of woeful administration.

In an interview with the newspaper El Tiempo, Lozano also revealed his bill will include a provision for a revision of the constitution to permit the re-election of mayors and governors. Under current laws, such regional politicians are restricted to one, four-year term. Lozano believes that, following the amendment applied in 2006 to allow the then President Alvaro Uribe to fight for a second period in office, there is little logic in limiting the nation’s second-tier leaders the same opportunity.

For Colombia Politics, Lozano’s measures are welcome improvements to what is essentially an anti-democratic status quo. It is, at least on a philosophical level, against the principles of democracy to prevent the electorate from keeping in power a successful and popular politician.

It is also the case that the prospect of re-election is often what drives politicians to respond to and represent better their voters. Nothing sharpens the mind quite like the spectre of an ignominious and humiliating defeat at the polls. Politicians who have at least one eye on keeping the electorate on side tend to do a better job. We as voters too will be more demanding of our leaders if we feel we have to live with them for possibly eight years.

And as for Petro…the campaign to revoke his mandate is under way. The mayor’s unpopularity is almost unparalleled, and he has only been in power for a year. Why? Quite simply, Petro is as far removed as it is possible from the idea of a centrist administrator who governs for the whole of the city.

Lozano is right to point to the short comings in Colombia’s democracy. Had his law been in place beforehand, perhaps Bogotá would have been spared the divisive Gustavo Petro, and the capital would have in power a leader determined to work for all, not just the few.

Colombia’s longest election campaign


Colombian politics in 2013 will be defined by electioneering and very little politics according to the noises this week from within the U, Conservative, Cambio Radical and Polo Democrats parties.

With over a year to go before polls open for the presidential and congressional elections it appears Colombia is to endure one of the longest election campaigns in her history.

Presidential re-elections are new to Colombian democracy, following a change to the constitution to permit Alvaro Uribe a second term in 2006. The immaturity shows as the nation’s political class – media and politicians alike – are all too readily falling into the trap of allowing talk of Juan Manuel Santos’ possible tilt at another four years in the top job to marginalize coverage and consideration of policy.

It was ever thus in a democracy? Perhaps so.

But take for example the new year message from Conservative Party leader, Efrain Cepeda. According to El Tiempo newspaper, Cepeda in conversation about the content of the party’s national convention, revealed “we’ll start internal consultation on whether to support the president’s re-election campaign”, the convention will be “purely programmatic”.

Depressing that the leader should admit to a lack of appetite to set out a political and ideological programme for government – surely it is not enough that the Conservative Party appears to be defined only by its support or otherwise of the president. For voters to put their X in the box against the Blues’ candidates, a reason must be presented for them to do so.

Senator Aurelio Iragorri, a co-president of the U Party (on whose platform Santos was elected in 2010) likewise indicated the principal challenges for 2013 will be to define support for the president and to “consolidate” and mobilize “our mayor, governors and regional directors” – in other words, oil the party machine. Far enough, perhaps for this party of government, but it must – as with the Conservatives – work to present a prospectus to the nation. That must come first, party organization second.

Meanwhile, the direction of Cambio Radical will be defined by the moves of their leader, Housing Minster German Vargas Lleras. Like the Conservatives and the U Party, Cambio Radical are within Santos’ coalition government – and it is virtually impossible (ditto for the Liberal Party) to see them not supporting the president’s campaign. Their consideration will be how they work or don’t work with the Liberal Party and whether Vargas Lleras resigns from his government post to head up the party’s list for the senate. Again – it’s difficult to see how the overriding consideration will be anything other than organization.

At least Clara Lopez, the Polo Democrats’ presidential candidate has indicated a willingness to engage and “present a programme” to the electorate. But the Polo are an opposition party so it’s more than obvious that they will continue to present an alternative vision. Paradoxically, it is precisely the Polo who should be focusing on internal structures – the party is in some disarray and – due to law changes moving the threshold for representation up from 2 to 3% of the vote – could wind up extinct in 2014, with no parliamentarians returned to the Capitolio.

The media have a role to play in widening the debate, but there is precious little indication they will do so. After all, it’s easier for them to focus on the soap opera of (to paraphrase from King Lear), who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down. Personality is always cheaper and easier to cover than the politics.

Colombia Politics is by no means immune to this either.

Despite this, we should expect Santos himself to focus on what defines him, what makes him a re-electable candidate. In his new year message, the president chose to focus precisely on the area where he knows his opponents will try to hit him – on security. While in Cali, Santos listed his government’s achievements in bringing down the homicide rate, of taking out 25 of the FARC’s top militants, and the killing or capturing of all the leaders of the so-called BACRIM criminal groups. Santos’ message is that – yes, he is continuing Uribe’s tough stance – but that he is doing it his own way. Colombia Politics expects Santos will be bold over the coming year and present a policy platform that is both tough and liberal – the archetypal “Third Way” of which he is so enamoured.

As Santos sets out his vision, however, congressmen concerned with securing their own re-election and future roles in government will hedge their bets, and calculate whether to throw their support behind Santos or to position themselves elsewhere – depending on the prevailing wind.

Ideology is often lost to the political gene of self-preservation.