Colombia’s government and congress have reached an agreement to change the country’s political system to facilitate FARC rebels’ entry into congress and strengthen opposition in congress.
During a meeting in Cartagena on Friday, President Juan Manuel Santos, government representatives at peace talks with the FARC and congressmen admitted Colombia’s current political system effectively excludes political minorities from entering and taking part in politics.
The meeting to reform the opposition statute was not just attended by members of both Santos’ coalition, but also leftist opposition parties and the Democratic Center, the largest opposition party on the right which has become an iconic example of political marginalization, paradoxically because of its opposition to peace talks with the FARC.
As part of the peace talks, the guerrillas vowed to abandon their weapons and in return be allowed to take part in politics.
To facilitate this transition, the government, and the coalition and opposition parties vowed to form a task force that will prepare a packet of reforms of the political system, necessary for the FARC to enter politics and reduce the concentration of political power in general.
Lowering the threshold for parties to take part in elections
The government and Congress agrees to lowering rigid conditions imposed on political outsiders or newcomers to form a political party. For example, a political movement will require less signatures in their support to enter the ballot, which will enable FARC and other minority groups to qualify to run in elections.
Once allowed to take part in elections, political parties gain access to funds to support their campaigns.
In the current system, smaller political movements lack the necessary resources to gather the popular support legitimizing their entry to Congress, making it virtually impossible to enter the political arena long dominated by wealthy political dynasties.
Ending prioritization of individual candidates
The agreed task force will also look for ways to switch to an electoral system that allows voters to vote for a party, rather than individual members of a party.
In the current system, voters have to both vote the part and an individual candidate. The selection of congressmen is now determined by the number of their preferential votes, which has been abused widely by corrupt politicians to buy votes and illegally enter Congress.
In the proposed system, the political party will form its list of candidates and their order of appearance on the list. If a party, for example has 30 candidates, but wins 20 seats, the first 20 on the list will automatically be elected, not the 20 with most votes.
The method will also increase the parties’ liability if they are caught proposing corrupt candidates.
Administrative positions and budgets for the opposition
Another major reform allows coalition congressmen to run for presidential positions in Congress’ Commissions instead of restricting those positions to candidates in the coalitions.
Giving opposition parties the ability to run for presidential positions in committees such as the Advisory Commission for Foreign Affairs would drastically increase their influence in the commissions, making it more difficult for a coalition to completely ignore opposition concerns.
Balance of power in Colombia’s Senate
It would also increase the opposition’s informal administrative power by giving opposition commission presidents control over investment budgets.
These budgets are currently considered part of what in Colombia is known as “mermelada” or “jam,” government budgets that can be, and are used to obtain political support in return for public investment funds.
This is a very sweet deal for any opposition politician. In the 2014 congressional elections, the five congressmen who reportedly received most of the jam (together receiving $77.4 million in budgets) boosted their election success by 93.8% on average compared to the 2010 election.
Reforms long overdue: Minister
Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando Cristo, who will lead the task force, told press he believed these reforms should have been addressed decades ago.
Congress President Luis Fernando Velasco, one of the main beneficiaries of “the jam” in the last elections, said to be skeptical and that he believes the problem lies in excessive power within the executive branch of government.
Velasco pointed out that the current government only consists of Bogota’s political elite, making the political system in effect more a feudal rather than a democratic system.
According to Velasco, the arbitrary allocation of public funds is because “in Colombia, rather than having a president we have a viceroy, and the power is with the Minister’s Council where only three Bogota universities are represented.”
Government and congress ahead of peace talks
While agreements between the FARC and the government, according to their agreements, would not come into force until after a final peace deal is signed, Santos and Congress decided to move ahead with the reforms in spite of ongoing negotiations with the guerrillas.
Clara Lopez of the leftist Polo Democratico opposition party called the agreements a “great advance towards peace,” expressing hope that by preparing the way for the FARC’s entry into the political system, they will be more inclined to speed up the process and the risk of the peace talks failing is reduced.
The Polo Democratico, the biggest opposition party on the left, would be one of the main beneficiaries of the proposed redistribution of “the jam.”
This packet of reforms should be passed before June 20 and would take effect when Congress begins a new congressional year on August 7.