Americas

Delegative Democracy: The Case of Colombia

Colombian President Uribe at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Sept. 26. (Photo: Nicholas Roberts / AFP-Getty Images)

In 1994, Guillermo O'Donnell, one of Latin America's most prominent political scientists, identified a "new species" of democracy that was now present throughout most of Latin America, and labeled this phenomenon "delegative democracy," a type that is neither representative nor institutionalized. The basic premise of a delegative democracy is that once an individual is elected president he/she is "thereby entitled to govern as he or she sees fit." Power falls into the hands of a single person, but, unlike authoritarianism, the leader is still held accountable at the ballot box by the electorate. O'Donnell has used his theory to describe accurately variants of democracies in countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru. Colombia, though, didn't seem to fit the delegative democratic model comfortably. However, since Alvaro Uribe, a Liberal Party dissident, rose to power in 2002, Colombia's democracy has increasingly become more delegative, and thus less representative. The populace, tired of decades of corruption and complacency under an ineffectual bipartisan model, chose a leader who is the epitome of the presumptive delegative democratic model: a highly individualistic, paternalistic figure who sits above all other institutions as "the embodiment of the nation."

Even though Uribe has provided short-term results, especially in recuperating territorial control of areas where the state hasn't had a physical presence for many years, his achievements—which include a booming economy, lower kidnapping rates, and record-breaking amounts of illegal drug seizures—are simply his own, as distinguished from Colombia's. Once his second term expires, these upbeat figures could easily revert back to pre-Uribe rankings because Colombia's solid institutions have yet to secure an importable role in the democratic process. According to O'Donnell, the problem lies in the lack of horizontal accountability—a network of institutions that can "call into question and eventually punish" the president's power. The courts, Congress, national agencies, and political parties are all examples of institutions that have been challenged by Uribe. Meanwhile the electorate has become, as predicted by O'Donnell, "a passive but cheering audience of what the president does."

Lack of Checks and Balances

Horizontal accountability refers to the network of agencies that serve as checks and balances to presidential power. In Colombia, these agencies do exist but nonetheless have progressively lost their tectonic edge throughout the years of Uribe's administration. O'Donnell further argues that if the institutions that make horizontal accountability effective are seen by a delegative president as "unnecessary encumbrances to their 'mission,'" he/she would make arduous efforts to hinder their development or simply abort their relevance. That is exactly what is happening in Colombia. For example, two directors of DANE, the country's center for statistics, have resigned in the midst of a scandal that has raised questions as to the legitimacy of employment data; a few months ago, Uribe publicly confronted and accused the Supreme Court, one of the country's most treasured institutions, of being biased against his law for granting pardons to thousands of right-wing paramilitaries. With expressions such as "cowards" and "terrorists disguised as civilians," Uribe and his inner circle—some of whom share the same hard-line posture—have tried to rule out of the system those who dare to question his administration, including credible members of perfectly respectable political tendencies. These attacks on Colombia's institutions represent a fundamental flaw in Uribe's governing style, which has resulted in the serious undermining of the institutionalization of democracy in his country.

An Early Attempt to Seize Power

The first major project of Uribe's presidency was the staging of a national referendum that included a variety of complex technical issues, such as a proposed reform that would establish a unicameral congress (instead of the current two houses) and sharply reduce the number of representatives. Carlos Gaviria, an academic and a former judge of the Constitutional Court, said that Uribe's referendum "talks about defending democracy, [by] destroying democracy." Even Juan Lozano, a well-known Uribe follower, admitted in El Tiempo that "it is a severe mistake to insist on a unicameral congress with precarious political and territorial representation."

Before the referendum went to the polls, the Colombian Congress modified certain aspects of the document, lengthened it, and gained leverage regarding some of the issues at stake. More importantly, different political voices from across the country had enough residual power to campaign against the referendum, ultimately bringing it down because it did not attain the minimum number of votes needed for its approval (25 percent of the Colombian electorate).

The clash over the referendum, independent from one's stand on the actual issues it proposed, exemplifies the interaction among strong institutional forces that effectively and happily limit the president's power, if the operational mechanism is working. However, these institutions increasingly have faced greater challenges from a president who has been determined to service his own agenda, and, perhaps unintentionally, has ended up undermining some of Colombia's most cherished institutions in the process.

On 'Uribismo'

The profoundly messianic movement that has surged in support of Uribe and his policies, known as "uribismo," has significantly deteriorated the country's capacity for horizontal accountability, mainly because it has become a majority force that will not challenge the president's authority. Despite the fact that "uribismo" is embodied in two of Colombia's most popular political parties (namely, the "U" Party and the Radical Change Party), their ideology is essentially empty if not meretricious. Disputes within these parties, which are nothing but a congregation of conservatives, liberals, and independents with different backgrounds, reveal that no one—not even Uribe—knows their guiding philosophy. The slogan of the "U" Party, for instance, invites Colombians to "stop criticizing, work with us," suggesting a permissive attitude with the singular goal of carrying out the president's agenda, not their own. It directly condemns critics of Uribe's policies, ignoring the fact that a loyal opposition is an essential ingredient in any respectable institutionalized democracy.

Opposition parties, such as the Liberal Party and the Independent Democratic Pole, have counteracted the triumphal successes of Uribe's parties to some extent by making clear their own ideological position. Nevertheless, their efforts are minimal when juxtaposed with a president who relies on a vertically accountable popular majority in order to launch attacks against ideological dissenters that seem inappropriate, to say the least.

Reelection Drama

Uribe announced in his first term that he would not try to modify the Colombian Constitution, which stated that a president could not stand for reelection. However, Uribe, perhaps overtaken by power issues, eventually changed his posture and sought reelection. Fabio Echeverri, his advisor, said that all he needed was just "the reform of a little article" in the Colombian Constitution. The modification of that "little article," however, disemboweled a unique tradition that has been historically valued by Colombians: the ability to limit presidential power. Contrary to the typical Latin American scenario, Colombia's institutions have usually kept the executive branch's arsenal in check for over a century, preventing the rise of brutal dictators that, with distressing frequency, have usurped civil authority in countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.

Uribe's reelection bid faced tough opposition in Congress. Contrary to his campaign promises of fighting politiquería (corruption among politicians), Uribe promised benefits from the public purse for two legislators in exchange for their crucial votes that would doctor a change in Colombia's reelection structures. The "Yidis y Teodolindo" scandal, named after them, was clearly an act of corruption on the part of the presidential office and initially did not obtain the attention it deserved from international media. By the slim margin of one vote, the reelection measure eventually passed through the First Commission of the House.

The Constitutional Court then began its long struggle against the president, threatening to label his reelection move "unconstitutional." Nevertheless, Uribe's huge approval rating (at the time hovering around 75 percent) compromised the Court's range of action. The Court decided to turn away from a sense of rectitude at the cost of its good name, and allowed the reelection bill to become law.

In the long run, both Congress and the judicial branch lost their battle with Uribe. Even though he fully submitted to the legal process, paternalistic attitudes and underhanded actions outweighed the proper role to be played by major political institutions, which instead of defending the Republic, surrendered to their most base instincts and voided their key role in protecting Colombia's democracy.

Plan Colombia's Shift

The United States Congress has recently pushed forth a different approach concerning Colombian aid. Even though the total amount of funds scheduled to be sent to Colombia in the fiscal year of 2008 will largely remain the same as in previous years (approximately $500 million), the Appropriations Act (referred to its Senate Committee after being received from the House) mandates that less of the total amount will be destined for military use while more will be sent for funding of "alternative development/institution building and sustainable development programs." Roughly half of the net amount, not less than $218.5 million, will be distributed via USAID to reform various justice programs, assist organizations that protect human rights, support Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and aid the office of the country's Attorney General, among other programs. This fundamental shift reveals a more comprehensible and certainly more sophisticated stance in United States' foreign policy initiatives aimed at Colombia. More importantly, the political message behind this renovated attitude is more essential than the actual amount of money allotted: It indicates that Colombia needs to rely more heavily on its embattled civic institutions, especially during a time of war when the law must be upheld regardless of who sits as the head of state.

If its institutions are in sync, Colombia could medicate its war-torn wounds more quickly and efficiently. Naturally, this involves leadership from Uribe to guide the intensely controversial demobilization process that aims to put an end to decades of violence by the rightwing AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) by essentially exonerating its members of their brutal human rights violations. Support from the United States is more pro-democratic and more effective in the long run when its funds are used to aid a country's institutional infrastructure, rather than just sponsor the whims of an often off-course leader.

Conclusion

Uribe has gone a long way in deinstitutionalizing Colombia's already battered democracy, which despite its flaws, has filled his fellow citizens with pride for being the least intermittent one in South America. The ineffectiveness of Colombia's institutions in handling the country's biggest social problems can be recuperated through a gradualistic yet wholly democratic process. This would require more aggressive and high-quality investment in education, health, and nutrition, which would effectively allow Colombia's poor (nearly half of the country's total population) to gain some leverage in a state that has ignored them for decades. Solving social inequities, which in turn legitimizes the role of a country's complex network of institutions by giving the people a higher stake for believing in the system, should be the number one priority of Colombia's political class: current efforts simply are not enough.

Moreover, United States aid is most strategic when it aims at helping to restructure a country's institutions, especially when it is aimed at strengthening a judiciary that has to deal with making amends to war victims and hunting down the perpetrators of gross human rights violations that have cost tens of thousands of lives over the decades. The United States must continuously reassure Colombian society that it backs democracy regardless of its leader, because more often than not it is reforming the office rather than changing the office holder that serves the greater good of a country.

In the end, Colombians need to realize that institutions are permanent while individuals are not. Strong institutions translate into greater accountability, and higher accountability makes a government more responsive to the people's needs. It is of the utmost importance that Colombians turn their backs once and for all on the naive belief that a polished but strained superhero can solve problems better than an admirably institutionalized and legitimate democratic process.

From the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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