#U Party

Ex-President Uribe on course to win 2 million votes


Colombia`s Ex-President Alvaro Uribe is set to win over 2 million votes in next year`s congressional elections says poll.

Based on the findings of canvassers Datexco, Colombia`s three main political parties will all see their vote share reduced by hundreds of thousands when ballots are cast in March.

Leaders are staring down the barrel of a gun as President Santos supporting U Party is on course to lose over 900,000 votes, while some 660,000 will desert the Conservatives. And although Liberal Party boss, Simon Gaviria denies his collective will be affected, they are projected to shed 474,000 supporters.

Despite never having fought an election in the past, Uribe`s Centro Democratico (CD) movement is threatening to emerge as the largest party in congress, dealing a heavy blow to President Santos` hopes of a successful second period in office.

It is far too early to tell how soft the support for Uribe is; Senate and Representative lists for the CD were only announced last month and candidates face a long and brutal campaign.  And while the former president himself remains hugely popular in certain sections of Colombian society, his running mates are largely invisible figures.

What ever the result next year, however, it looks certain that an incoming president will face a very different congress to that enjoyed by President Santos these past three years. Santos has ruled over a coalition government that controls over 90% of the legislature. Record numbers of laws have been passed, and opposition to the executive has been feeble, almost non-existent.

A congress with Uribe leading a pack of new and hungry senators is a prospect that has some political commentators salivating. Should Santos run for president again (he has until 25 November to announce his decision) and win, he would struggle to pull together a majority coalition in congress.

Colombia Politics expects the Conservatives will eventually join forces with the Uribistas of the CD. Santos must also face the reality that a number of supposed colleagues elected as U Party members remain loyal to their old boss, Uribe (rather than their current boss, Santos) and will link up with the Conservatives CD grouping.

If all remains to play for in the presidential elections, the same can also be said of the congressional vote.

Colombia´s Paramilitary Politics


Colombian´s Supreme Court has ordered the capture of Senator Piedad Zuccardi for supposed links with the country´s murderous right-wing paramilitaries. 

Zuccardi is currently in Panama and will return to Colombia on Tuesday to hand herself into the authorities, and relinquish her seat in the senate.

The U Party senator was a key player in President Santos´re-election bid in the coastal department of Bolívar, and her departure from the political scene will (indirectly) damage not only the president but the already disastrous reputation of the political class.

Since Pablo Escobar entered congress in the 80s, Colombian politics have had a highly visible association with the illegal paramilitary groups with the dirty money from their narcotraficking and other criminal activities financing numerous election campaigns across the 80s, 90s and into this century.

Zuccardi is just one on a long list of shamed politicians the full extent of which began to become apparent in the last parliament as part of the “parapolitics” scandal that led to the charging of countless members of parliament from across the political spectrum.

There are many that try to pin the parapolitics on to the government of Uribe, but the reality of the situation is much more complex. Financial links to the paras have by no means been limited to senators who supported Uribe – the fact is, the paras go where the power is, they finance those they believe will have influence.

Many on the left will try to present this now as Santos problem. It is not – at least not directly. It is a problem with the way politics are financed in Colombia.

Be wary of any holier the thou claims from NGOs or politicians out to make a capital out of the situation. No one wins from this situation, all politics is tainted.

U Party ditch Uribe


Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos received a resounding endorsement from his party’s chairman at a press conference on Friday, who was dismissive of the Uribista wing of the party and the former President.

Jaime Buenahora claimed that “99% of the parliamentary party” back Santos as leader, putting to bed any claims Alvaro Uribe has to its direction.

He called Santos the “natural leader” and emphasised the president´s centrist credentials, claiming he represented a “progressive ideology” that was distinct from Uribe. He said that many within the U Party saw Uribe and Santos as not only representing different styles but also different philosophies.

Indeed, he pointed out that Senator Juan Carlos Velez, who has become the most strident of congressional Uribistas, was a “dissident spokesman and a representative of the Conservative party”. He remarked: “that (Conservatism) is the real ideology of former President Uribe”.

The backing of his party has fortified Santos’ position as leader in a year when he is expected to announce his candidacy for the next Presidential Elections in 2014.

What is more, it confirms the ideological shift of the leadership away from the conservative and divisive politics of Uribe that were the hallmark of his presidency, towards a more “progressive” and “third way” brand of politics that Santos believes he represents.

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.

Uribe v Silva: Colombia´s combative democracy

Colombia´s Ex-President Alvaro Uribe went to war this week with his former defence minister Gabriel Silva in what Colombia Politics sees as the start of a long and ugly election campaign for 2014.

Uribe accused his old comrade, who was in post for the final year of government following President Santos´departure (to kick start his election campaign), of being a “social climber”, an “inept bureaucrat”, and an “opportunist”. Uribe also threatened to sue Silva for remarks the latter made about the ex-president´s reluctance to order a mission against FARC top brass Iván Márquez who, at the time, was hiding out in Venezuela.

Silva, an uber loyal member of President Juan Manuel Santos´ inner circle, had earlier in the week written a polemic attack on Uribe´s speech to last month´s U Party general assembly meeting, a piece that ignited the indignation of Uribistas and appeared to delight President Santos who promptly retweeted the article to his near 1.5 million followers.

Many see the president´s decision to forward the article as an implicit endorsement of Silva´s words. Since coming to power Santos has remained true to his promise not attack his former boss. But the gloves have now come off. At the U Party gathering Santos, although refusing to name his predecessor, criticised the action of the “ruffians” who came to event to try to show who was boss. Now, three weeks later and it appears as through Silva has been given a let off the leash – the president´s attack dog (allowing Santos himself to remain above the fray.

Colombia´s media is in almost universal agreement that this battle is unsavoury, and demeaning, concluding that both Silva and Uribe are set to see a negative effect on their standing among voters. For Silva this matters less, as he is a virtually unknown entity. The election aspiring Uribe, on the other hand, has more to lose, something Santos – the ultimate chess player – has quite clearly calculated.

Santos´ short and medium term electoral tactic will be to marginalize Uribe and try to cast him as an extremist, drunk on power and willing to promise and say anything to get back onto the national political stage. Uribe appears dangerously close to falling into this trap.

Shrillness will, in the long run harm Uribe. His base of supporters will remain but he will find it increasingly difficult to reach out to those in the centre, to build the coalition he needs, and he once relied on.

The media are wrong too to allow Santos to win this battle so easily. Sure, it was an odd move for Uribe to threaten legal action against Silva, but there is nothing inherently wrong with verbal conflict and a clash of ideas in the political process. By pretending that there is the media consciously or unconsciously negatively spin Uribe´s actions.

Colombia has long suffered from a certain tyranny of unanimity in which the president is the only figure that counts, and where –organized – opposition is virtually non-existent.

Opposition is healthy – indeed necessary – for democracy, and bloody, ugly, vicious fights are what all good, mature parliaments are made of. It is the way the voters find out the truth and they way politicians are forced to defend their decisions. It´s accountability, stupid.

The Colombian media complain of the so-called polarization of the nation as though it were a bad thing that not everyone agrees with the president, as though having a choice before the electorate were a vulgar and unwanted nuisance.

Colombia´s political oligarchy and closed political class has led the media to expect patrician governments. The history tells us that for decades the Conservative and Liberal parties alternated power, operating a virtual pact – “it´s your turn this time, and our turn next”.

Uribe´s campaign to return to power through the senate is forcing the governing classes to view politics differently, to begin to understand that bureaucracy is one thing, and that participative open democracy quite another.

The media may not like the fight much but they should rejoice it. Not only will it provide them with acres of column inches, it is also a sign of the birth of a more direct and combative politics.

Long may the fight live on.


Senator Álvaro Uribe 2014-18?

Uribe, as president.

Colombia´s Ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez is expected within weeks to announce his candidature for the Senate elections 2014 setting up a certain return to front line politics in opposition to his former Defence Minister, President Juan Manuel Santos.

Uribe is said to be compiling a list of candidates, ready to campaign from as early as January. A poll by Cifras y Conceptos showed that, were Uribe to head up this group, 55% of urban voters would turn out in support of him.  Uribe´s support is traditionally even higher in rural Colombia.

The ex-president´s popularity is not restricted to the electorate, however, and he enjoys loyal support from many within the Congress.

Over the coming months we will see a battle for hearts and minds as Uribe seeks to wrest politicians from Santos´ National Unity Coalition government.

Former Conservative Presidential hopeful , Noemí Sanin has already signalled that “a good part of the Conservative Party” will join the Uribe ranks, and noise grows within the U Party about possible defections.

U Party Senators Juan Carlos Vélez Uribe, and Carlos Enrique Soto are dead certs to join Uribe, but Santos is working to prevent further departures, using the powers of presidential patronage to temp waverers to stay with him.

Last month at the general assembly of the U Party, (which supported Uribe when in government and is also the party of President Santos), Uribe lobbied hard to suck support away from the government and encourage sympathizers to join his troops.

Santos defiantly stood his ground, however, and the U Party hierarchy backed him to the hilt.

Despite officially still belonging to the U, Uribe´s relationship with the party is now unclear. Earlier this year a new political movement Puro Centro Democratico was launched as the vehicle to support a return of Uribismo to the Capitolio, but it is not certain that Uribe´s senate list will go under this name.

There are some, like Juan Carlos Vélez who suggest the U Party could support the Uribe campaign. For the time being this idea appears far-fetched unless the president were to jump ship (to join the Liberals – something difficult to countenance this side of an election, of course).

So, although U Party activists remain, in significant numbers, more aligned to Uribe than to Santos, the parliamentary party is with the president.

Assuming Uribe does announce his candidature in the new year, rumours suggest the list of candidates could mark a generational shift in Colombian politics. Uribe wants to shake up the political establishment by taking with him to Congress a series of young and ambitious politicians, like Paloma Valencia, the analyst and broadcaster.

Uribe, who cast himself as something of an outsider to the closed ranks of Colombia´s political oligarchy to win the 2002 election, is said to be keen to repeat this phenomenon, hoping to change the make-up of the legislature.

It is difficult to predict the number of seats Uribe would win – the Cifras y Conceptos poll asked voters whether they would vote for Uribe, but they did not ask whether they would vote for him against a candidate or b candidate and so the exercise was to an extent academic.

Nevertheless, evidence is plentiful that Uribe remains extremely popular within certain sections of society – particularly rural voters and those in Colombia´s “estratos” one and two.

Following the elections in 2014, it is entirely possible, therefore, that Uribe´s movement – under whatever name it goes by at the time – could emerge with the largest number of senators.

This would pose a major problem for a re-elected President Santos. His second term legislative changes would face difficult – and sometimes impossible – passages through Congress.

Given Uribe´s fierce opposition to the peace talks – and to what could form the detail of an eventual negotiated agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government – Santos will have more than one eye on the Congress´ timetable, knowing that unless he is able to force through any legislative changes as part of the outcome of the negotiations before this parliament is over, life will be excruciatingly difficult thereafter.

Some say Uribe will also try to recapture the presidency in 2014 through the proxy of an uber-loyal candidate.

This has truth, but Uribe knows that if Santos is to run for re-election – itself almost an inevitability – it will be extremely difficult to defeat him (with or without a successful outcome to the peace talks).

Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the current Uribista pre-candidate has a low profile and has an almost impossible route to the Presidential Palace at the Casa de Nariño.

Uribe may well opt to pitch for a more hard hitting candidate or he may opt to keep his powder dry this time, choose to get elected to the Senate and use that as a base for an Uribismo tilt at the presidency 2018-2022. Either way, it´s an unavoidable fact that Uribe still helps define Colombian politics.

There is just one complication that threatens to bog Uribismo down.

Should Uribe become a senator he will lose his presidential immunity, and with that perhaps an inevitable slew of lawsuits awaits…

This article first appeared on Colombia Reports.

Santos, Uribe head to head, Sunday

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos this Sunday comes face to face with Álvaro Uribe as both men take to the stage at the U Party general assembly.

Parliamentarians, mayors, governors, councillors and activists from across the country will meet to elect the new party president, and also to listen to Santos and his predecessor present opposing views on both the future direction of party, and on the peace process.

Santos was elected president in 2010 as the U Party candidate, while Uribe also governed (for the last four years of his time in office) on the U platform.

Despite officially belonging to the same party, Uribe has emerged as the most vocal politician in opposition to the Santos regime.

The election of the new party chief will define the direction of the movement as we enter the pre-election period. But while is unclear who will receive the baton from outgoing and staunch Uribista U leader, Juan Lozano, it is expected the party will pin its hopes on Santos, and neglect the advances of Uribe.

As Santos prepares for his re-election campaign in 2014 he requires the electoral machinery of the party that brought him to power, and to secure this he can deploy his trump card – the unrivaled powers of patronage enjoyed by the tenant of the Casa de Nariño.

Early summer Uribe announced he would split from the U to establish a new political movement, Puro Centro Democratico, a departure that remains unconfirmed, leaving Uribe effectively in two camps.

Will he stay in the U or will he leave?

According to rumours, Colombia Politics understands that Uribe will use Sunday´s meeting to encourage his supporters to leave the party and join him on a new list for parliamentary elections.

Following a poll showing that over half of the electorate would vote for Uribe´s return to congress, talk has grown this week of an imminent announcement from the ex-president that he will stand for the senate in 2014.

Were Uribe to put his name forward he will as we approach the elections begin to attract current members of the Conservative and U Parties. The knock on effect will lead to at least some disintegration of Santos´ National Unity coalition (which brings together, among others, the three main parties, Con, U and Liberal).

Juan Manuel Santos established the U to support President Uribe´s second mandate in office and brought together a collection of Liberal, and Conservative politicians loyal to the Uribe. Many of these politicians continue to hold a torch for their old boss, and consider their marriage to the Santista government one of convenience.

Colombia Politics expects the U Party assembly will not lead to melt down just yet and the party will finish the weekend with a leader loyal to Santos. Politicians seldom act against their own interests,  and the president is in power.

This dynamic could well shift if Uribe does stand and as the election cycle approaches.


Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a political biography

Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Ex-President of Colombia, El Espectador

This is the first political biog on Colombia Politics. We thought we´d start with the controversial figure of Alvaro Uribe. Over the coming weeks more biogs will be added under a new, Who´s Who section of the website.

Alvaro Uribe

Uribe was Colombian President for two periods, 2002-2006 and 2006-2010.

Born in Medellin in 1954, Uribe is the son of farmer and landowner Alberto Uribe Sierra, and Laura Uribe Velez, a local councillor in Salgar, Antioquia.

While at the University of Antioquia reading law and political science, Uribe joined the Young Liberals.

Uribe entered public life, through his connections to the Liberal Party, taking up a number of state jobs during the 70 and early 80s. Most famously he was Director of Civil Aviation between 1980 and 1982.

By 1982 Uribe had entered politics proper and became mayor of Medellín (in the 80s mayors were not elected but appointed by the President of the Republic who at the time was Belisario Betancur).

Uribe´s time as mayor was short lived, and in 1983 the ex-president suffered what was to shape his political career; the death of his father, at the hands of the FARC.

Later that decade, Uribe made his way to the senate, as a Liberal, until he left in 1994 to become Governor of Antioquia.

As governor, Uribe controversially took the lead on promoting ´Convivir´, a process that began with private security firms working with the armed forces, and led to (some within this) joining the illegal self-defence groups.

During these years, Uribe cultivated a hard-line image, an approach that later became the ´mano dura´ platform of his presidency.

After leaving office in 98, Uribe disappeared from the politics (and for a while, the country) returning in 2000 to join Liberal, Horacio Serpa´s campaign for the 2002 presidency.

But the Liberal Party lost Uribe with its decision to support President Pastrana´s (Conservative) infamous peace negotiations with the FARC in Caguán.

At this point Uribe broke away and became an independent, deciding to run for the presidency, without the backing of a traditional political force.

According to folk law, Uribe´s election winning manifesto of all-out war against the FARC came about following a nation-wide ´listening tour´, in which he went from town to town to try to understand the concerns both of rural and urban populations. After hearing repeatedly that the threat of the guerilla was the number one issue, Uribe´s mind was fixed and a political narrative born.

How true it is that these talks shaped Uribe´s politics is difficult to prove, but it is a good story, and this direct connection Uribe established with populations – often forgotten by the urban elite – was something that the president cultivated throughout his time in office. And was this folksy-charm that kept him popular throughout his 8 years in the Casa de Nariño.

In 2002 Uribe became President of Colombia in the first round, with over 50% of the vote, leaving eight years later with an approval rating in the 70s.

In power Uribe used the money secured as part of Plan Colombia (signed between Pastrana and Bill Clinton) to establish the ‘democratic security’ doctrine which strengthening the military, and took the fight to the FARC.

By the time Uribe had left office the image of Colombia abroad had been transformed, foreign direct investment began to flood in, and GDP had close on doubled. Uribe is credited with helping to rescue the country from its descent towards a failed state.

By 2005, Uribe´s popularity lead the president to push for a reform of the constitution which had hitherto restricted heads of state to one term only.  Uribe secured the changes, and gathered a coalition of support, to run for re-election. With the backing of Juan Manuel Santos´ newly created U Party, the Conservatives, and Cambio Radical (among other groups), Uribe was returned to office with over 60% of the vote (and a large majority in Congress).

Uribe´s second term was seen in some ways as being less successful than his first, in part because government official and coalition members became embroiled in scandals – the most dramatic of which was the ´parapolitics´ revelation which led to the conviction of congressman for their ties with paramilitary groups.

Other scandals included ´Yidispolítica´, the DAS´ (intelligence agency) systemic wiretapping of judges and opposition politicians, and the extrajudicial killings of civilians (who were made to appear as though they were guerrilla combatants) known as ´false positives´. There is not space here to details these scandals, but it is worth noting that they continue to affect the image of the last government, as well as Uribe himself.

As the end of Uribe´s second mandate approached, parliamentarians ran a campaign to call a referendum, that if passed, would permit the president to run for a third time, in 2010. The courts prevented the legislation from passing into law, and Uribe was forced eventually to lend support to Juan Manuel Santos (his Defence Minister) in the presidential elections of that year.

Uribe left office as perhaps the most popular president in Colombian history. For all the controversy that he attracted, he could point to major improvements in the security situation, and the major debilitation of the FARC. While his critics accuse him of corruption, or at least of supporting corrupt officials.

Since leaving office, Uribe has transformed into the most vocal opposition politician in the land, attacking President Santos (whose candidature he supported) for not (as Uribe sees it) continuing with the policies of the ex-president.

Earlier this year, Uribe launched a new political party, Puro Centro Democratico, a base from which he hopes Uribism can return to the presidential palace. Uribe himself is constitutionally prohibited from running again, but the search is on for a candidate to lead his movement.

Uribe retains a fiercely loyal following. As a result of his polemical character, he also attracts equally fierce opposition.

The ex-president is an outspoken critic of the Santos government´s decision to enter into peace talks with the FARC.