Colombia's Uribe Pays for Political Stumbles

Alvaro Uribe
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe arrives in Chile, Dec. 8, 2003 (Photo: Victor Rojas/AFP-Getty Images).

The abrupt resignation under political fire in early November of a top Cabinet officer in President Álvaro Uribe’s administration marks the latest in a series of embarrassing political gaffes and miscalculations that threaten to erode Uribe’s previously solid base of support. The forced departure of Interior and Justice Minister Fernando Londoño Hoyos came less than two days after he infuriated legislators from the president’s own Conservative Party by issuing a bald threat—swiftly disavowed by Uribe—that the president would resign just 15 months into his term and call new national elections if Congress failed to approve his controversial agenda for fiscal and anti-corruption reforms.

“The warning that the government would contemplate a violation of the constitutional order if the party were to withdraw its support for President Uribe is as disconcerting as it is unacceptable,” commented El Tiempo in an editorial (Nov. 5). In the wake of this failed attempt at “poorly disguised blackmail,” the editorial observed, Uribe must come forward to openly address the nation’s growing unease over his government’s policy directions. This follows opposition victories in Bogotá and other key mayoral elections  and the defeat of a national referendum held in late October on Uribe’s ambitious reform program.

Riding historically high popular approval ratings that continued to top 70 percent more than a year into his presidency, Uribe staked his personal popularity on a vigorous campaign for sweeping referendum proposals to impose a two-year government spending freeze, reduce the size of Congress, and root out bureaucratic corruption. Yadala Jalilíe Silva, columnist in El Universal (Nov. 6), noted that the nation’s dominant political parties simply “folded their arms” and allowed the referendum to die, with many congressional leaders joining civic organizations in urging widespread absenteeism at the polls to deny the referendum the required minimum approval of 25 percent of the electorate. By focusing their energies instead on state and local elections, the Liberals and Conservatives demonstrated their “enormous resilience and vitality” and their capacity to “survive even under the new order.”

An editorial in El Colombiano (Nov. 6) urged Uribe to learn from his recent electoral reverses and the Londoño debacle by “making corrections in form and substance—not only in correcting impertinent declarations...but also in correcting positions and attitudes to guarantee success in the credible search for consensus.” At a time when Uribe faces an uphill battle in Congress to secure legislative approval of major government spending cuts and tax increases to maintain a healthy fiscal balance, “The key word is ‘consensus,’ ” El Colombiano said. “To reach consensus is the only way,” and congressional willingness to play an “active and altruistic role is essential in a democracy to prevent the ruler from feeling forced to act alone and possibly succumbing to autocratic temptations.”